AMERICAN HUSTLE

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By R. David

Viewed December 20, 2013

I recently watched David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” for the first time in maybe nearly a decade.  Russell has been making movies since 1994 and has moved into the upper Escalon of acclaimed Hollywood filmmakers over the last few years with Oscar-adorned dramas like 2010’s “The Fighter” and 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook”.  But re-watching 1999’s magnificent (and even for all of its adoring reviews, still relatively underrated) “Three Kings” again, it becomes clear that his ascension to mainstream acclaim has come at the expense of diluting his Independent Film spirit and his penchant towards fearless unconventionality.  “Three Kings” was an indie film masquerading as Hollywood crowd-pleaser.  With its big-name cast and big-budget aura, Russell was able to slyly insert enough quirky dialog and idiosyncratic filmmaking techniques to please the masses as well as art-house crowds.  The result was a breath of fresh air and a wholly unique film-going experience.

Russell has consistently brought an indie temperament to each of his projects since “Three Kings”, but they have progressively proved to lack the same gutsy earnestness that made “Kings” so invigorating.  These days, his air of free-spirit filmatism and peculiar dialog feel more like calculated efforts to distract critics from his increasingly conventional takes on tried and true genre exercises.  What, for instance, was “The Fighter” if not a conventional Hollywood underdog story and traditional Hollywood biopic?  Albeit, a terrifically acted and written one; but typical none the less.  “Silver Linings Playbook” also had its fair share of excellent performances and juicy dialog, but did it not play out like every romantic dramedy of its type? 

Never though has Russell’s attempt to convince us he’s still an original filmmaker despite channeling his voice through archetypical molds been more obvious than in his latest work, “American Hustle”.  With hardly-subtle nods to Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”-style camera work and voice-over tactics, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”-like era-specific exuberance, Russell no doubt sought to create a film achieving those director’s classic’s style and distinctive energy, but also added his own distinctive voice to the proceedings.  Alas, “American Hustle” rings too slight to stand alongside Russell’s obvious inspirations.

Like all of Russell’s work, the performances here and his witty, unpredictable outbursts of scrappy, honest dialog cannot be faulted.  “American Hustle” is an extremely well-acted film, and often a deliriously juicy gab fest.  But, for a movie about con-artists trying to outsmart the mob, the FBI, other con artists and potentially each other – where their freedom and perhaps their lives hang in the balance – the stakes never feel particularly high for any of the characters here.  “American Hustle” simply lacks the suspense, energy and excitement it seems to assume it has.  But it’s not for lack of effort on the casts’ part.

Christian Bale stars Irving Rosenfeld, an idealistic, 1970s con artist who would have a perfectly comfortable and happy life with wife Jennifer Lawrence (giving a live wire performance in a relatively small role), his adoptive son, their house in the suburbs and his successful chain of New York Laundromats.  But Irving cannot simply settle for “good enough”.  He also employs two-bit schemes involving non-existent loans and forged paintings, because he is a con artist at heart, with an emphasis on the artistry.  It’s not simply the money that gets Irving off (though he is working through some childhood drama where he swore he’d never have to want for anything ever again), but the idea that he is the smartest guy in the room.  Paunchy and balding with a bad comb-over, his confident demeanor and shrewd knowledge of business, financial and legal theories make him a successful conman, as well as irresistible to Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, a wannabe actress with a similarly desperate upbringing who is attracted to Irving’s intelligence, confident swagger, and exciting lifestyle despite his physical shortcomings.  He recruits her into his world of fraud and deception and with her sultry grace added to Irving’s convincing schemes, the two become wildly successful and fall madly in love.  But when they get pinched by Bradley Cooper’s ambitious but wildly insecure FBI agent Richie DiMaso, they are given the choice of working for him to bring down an idealistic congressman (Jeremy Renner) or go to jail.  But things get complicated when DiMaso develops and attraction to Sydney, the mob becomes involved, and Irving’s nutty wife threatens to expose that he and Sydney are working as FBI informants.

This all should make for a zestfully entertaining and often suspenseful bit of pulp true crime.  And there are moments when that is precisely what “American Hustle” achieves.  But those moments are mostly early on, and then few and far between.  Bale (who won an Oscar under Russell’s direction for “The Fighter”) and Adams in particular are both excellent (though the entire cast shines mightily), but their performances do more the film that it does for their characters.  The two simply move from one plot point to the next, trying their best to struggle upstream against a script that seems to have no forward momentum.  “American Hustle” is presumably building to a climax in which everyone either gets their comeuppance or – better yet – the twists and turns of all the different parallel cons lead to some unexpected surprises.  But despite all of “American Hustle’s” style and attitude, it couldn’t be more ordinary.  Like Irving, the movie tries to play up its considerable swagger and interesting little idiosyncrasies to mask its plain, bloated true self.

Russell still maintains a reliably strong eye for style, and his visual flair and arresting camera angles are often sublime.  And as a writer he has the ability to enthrall as he puts his characters through all sorts of verbal gymnastics.  But era-specific fashions, hair styles and other details only serve as entertainment by themselves for so long.  Sooner or later a movie has to live and die by its actual story and plot developments, and unfortunately, in this department, “American Hustle” is thoroughly marginal and frustratingly monotonous.  You can’t ignore the terrific performances, but that they are so good only further underscores how disappointing it is that the rest of the film is so lacking in grit, focus, and originality.

And that’s the most upsetting con of all.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

A WORD OR TWO ABOUT ‘BATFLECK’

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photo credit: npr.org

By R. David

On August 22, 2013 – a date that will live in internet infamy – Warner Bros. announced that Ben Affleck will be the new Batman in director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” sequel.  And immediately, as is now universal custom whenever a major pop culture casting decision is revealed, the Twitterverse and blogospheres lost their collective shit.

Frankly, no matter who was named the new Batman, things likely would have gone down pretty much the same way.  After all, what else is social media for if not to bitch about pop culture news?  Well, okay; that and shit like Grumpy Cat.

Actually, for once, I’m not sure the Internet had come together in agreement on the perfect choice for the new Dark Knight.  I don’t think there was even a fanboy Top 5 that formed something resembling a general consensus.  I heard Ryan Gosling’s name floated a bit (which would have been a terrible pick) and there was some (apparently premature or flat-out false) indication that Josh Brolin was the front-runner (I can see that).  Beyond that, there was a lot of talk about virtual unknowns and guys that you’d only want to be Batman because you watch “True Blood” getting the part.

Ultimately, Warner Bros. decided to go with a big name star and someone who’s career is on a critical and commercial hot streak at the moment (if you’ve forgotten, the last movie Affleck was in – which he also directed – just won the Best Picture Oscar).  If nothing else, from a business standpoint, I can’t fault their logic.

Oh, but the all-knowing fanboy masses apparently can.

Early internet chatter on the casting news has been overwhelmingly negative; with comic book fans, movie buffs, and even people who clearly don’t really give a shit who plays Batman caught in some weird Twitter competition to determine who can deliver the zaniest pun.  The real crazies went so far as to say things like “I’ll never see another Warner Bros. movie again,” and wishing harm to Affleck so the role would have to be recast.  Hell, within 24 hours there was already a change.org petition protesting Affleck’s casting.  Petitions, fer cryin’ out loud, people!

Most of the outrage comes from people who, ten years later, still feel burned by Affleck’s turn in “Daredevil”.  I’ll grant you guys, he wasn’t exactly an acting powerhouse in that one, but it was a shitty movie all around; a Marvel Comics’ movie before Marvel started making decent movies about their second-tier characters.

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image credit: tasteofcinema.com

Also, Affleck was a much different actor – and all-around person, some would argue – 10 years ago.  So this also goes for the people bringing up “Gigli”, “Reindeer Games”, or “Pearl Harbor”:  Whatever work the guy did at the height of his “Next Big Thing”, paycheck(no pun intended)-cashing, “Beniffer” days is probably not the greatest barometer with which to judge his acting skills – never mind his ability to portray Batman/Bruce Wayne.

I used to be as big an Affleck-hater as the next guy.  He seemed incapable of giving a performance without projecting an irksome air of bland smugness into every role (because, I figured, he probably was an irksome, bland and smug dude and just too shitty an actor to hide it on screen).  And nearly all of his film choices in the first two-thirds of the 2000s were utter crap (except for the time – ironically – when he portrayed “Superman” actor George Reeves in “Hollywoodland“).  But he has made a career turnaround in the last 6 years or so that is right out of a classic Hollywood comeback tale.  “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and “Argo” is as impressive a trilogy as any current director has delivered, never mind as their first three films out of the gate.  Granted, his directorial chops say nothing about his ability to play Batman, but it’s worth noting that he also starred in “The Town” and “Argo” – both brooding character dramas, not unlike Batman thematically– and to great dramatic effect.

image credit: film.com

image credit: film.com

Also, Superhero movies have a way of chewing up and spitting out the guys who seem perfect for the job, while proving those initially thought to be miscast as revelations.  Michael Keaton, generally a comedian and in no way physically imposing, as the first cinematic Batman; Heath Ledger, untested in anything resembling dark, psychological drama, as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”; relative unknown Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; and to one generation Robert Downey Jr. was a Hollywood punch line and to another he was, “who?”, when cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man – all were met with the same sort of venom-spewing indignation from obsessive comic book fans as Affleck is receiving at the moment .

Conversely; George Clooney, an up-and-coming Hollywood A-lister, was seen as the perfect choice to carry on the  Batman torch; Eric Bana was supposed to bring a certain gravitas to the role of the Hulk that often proved unattainable in big, Hollywood blockbusters; Nicolas Cage – still doing better-than-average box office numbers on his name alone at the time – in “Ghost Rider”; and Ray Stevenson (here’s your argument for – or against, depending on how you want to look at it – casting a relatively unknown TV actor as the titular hero in a comic book movie) was supposed to be the guy that saved “The Punisher” movie franchise.

Obviously, how those supposed bone-headed casting decisions worked out VS the supposed sure-things says a mouthful about trying to predict what type of actor will make a great superhero.

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image credit: nerdacy.com

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image credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

But choosing a quality Batman doesn’t simply boil down to bold, eyebrow-raising casting decisions. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale were the only Batmen to make an impression because they shared one simple but generally overlooked trait that Val Kilmer and George Clooney lacked: the ability to give two separate and distinguishable performances – one as Batman, one as Bruce Wayne.  Keaton was (surprisingly) effectively stoic and heroic as The Caped Crusader, but had a completely different attitude and demeanor as Bruce Wayne; convincing as both the shrewd business man and cocky playboy of Wayne’s public persona, but also as the tormented recluse of the character’s true self.  So successfully inhabiting both sides of the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is what made Keaton arguably the best Caped Crusader yet.  It’s a shame Tim Burton’s two Goth-deco epics with Keaton never truly mined the depths of the Wayne psyche the way Christopher Nolan’s films and – to an even greater and darker extent – Frank Miller’s comic adaptions of the character did. I would have loved to see Keaton dig even deeper into the Batman/Bruce-public/private divide.

Christian Bale pulled off a similar feat in Nolan’s Batpics, though I was never as convinced of his fun-loving playboy persona, of course that was no doubt an intentional choice on his and Nolan’s part to portray and explore a much darker Bruce Wayne. That makes Bale’s Wayne less removed from his titular alter ego, however he was no less convincing in drawing a line of distinction between the two.

The two Joel Schumacher Batman films of the mid-90s had many problems beyond the choice of actors to play Batman. Perhaps if they had been in films less cartoonish, poorly written and overstuffed with supporting characters; and that were less of a gaudy, fetishistic visual nightmare – maybe in completely different movies – Val Kilmer or George Clooney could have been a quality Batman/Bruce Wayne. As it is, their portrayals offer no distinction between the two personalities and no exploration into the mind and motivations of the two alter egos.  They give the same performance out of the Batsuit as in, and mistake both characters for fun-loving, gadget-obsessed thrill-seekers.  James Bond in a rubber suit (and this time with nipples and a codpiece, everybody!)

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

I have no reason to assume Ben Affleck – or Zack Snyder for that matter; he is the guy giving Affleck his direction after all – understands this distinction and will not make the same mistakes that Schumacher, Kilmer and Clooney did.  However, I have no reason to assume he will make the same mistakes either. Christopher Nolan (you know, the guy who gave the world what is overwhelmingly considered the most complex and narratively ambitious rendering of the Batman universe on screen so far) is producing Affleck’s first stab at the character; Warner Bros. would never allow another debacle the likes of the Schumacher Batflicks; and Affleck has grown by leaps and bounds as not just an actor but as a true filmmaker who, by that very definition, should understand the necessity of character development and giving an in-depth, multilayered performance.

As much as I’ve come around to accepting The New Ben Affleck, I too admittedly have some concerns about him being the right guy for the cowl. Something about his demeanor just doesn’t scream Batman to me. And even though I think he’s been good in several dramas, I have yet to see Affleck go really dark, or tackle any psychologically complex characters. And I fear as Bruce Wayne, he will simply pull out the same smirky, smug, smart-alecky posturing he coasted on for so much of his early career, before donning the Batsuit and then simply grimacing his way through the action sequences.

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But honestly, those are concerns I would have of nearly any actor set to take this role.  But that’s why they call it acting.  Ben Affleck may not have a lot of the necessary cred under his belt to justify him landing this gig; but then again, neither did Michael Keaton or Christian Bale or Heath Ledger. Producers and directors have to be trusted to know which performers embody what they are looking for in their characters and give them the part based on how they fit into that mold – and hopefully how capable they are of breaking it. My hope is that Warner Bros., Snyder and Nolan genuinely see that in Affleck, and not simply a big name to potentially beef-up grosses when a lesser-known actor may have brought a more complex performance to the table.

Only time will tell and I may eat my words (and I will gladly admit fault if that time indeed comes), but I say Ben Affleck will end up surprising us all, and his Batman will be the next step in his impressive career evolution.

Frankly, I’m more concerned that Snyder and Co. botch the whole ‘Superman VS Batman’ concept and set Affleck up to fail by sticking him in movie that treats Batman as an afterthought or stunt-casting coupe simply to get people to pay for another bombastic-yet-empty “Man of Steel” flick.  We’re assuming Snyder’s take on Batman will even want to be as dark and morally complex as Nolan and Burton’s renderings. They could be shooting for a much more family-friendly, Marvel-like take on the character(s) simply to set-up the inevitable “Justice League” behemoth and position it as an “Avengers”-style, easily accessible crowd-pleaser.

Christ, I hope not.

There too, though:  deep breath, remain calm, positive thoughts.