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So Bad It's Good

Art of the Steal

On American Hustle and The Desolation of Smaug

The pills popped in American Hustle are prescription, but the movie has a strange druggy energy. It could never pass a sobriety test — not because it’s drunk, but because it’s mentally off. Everybody keeps changing their minds, their hair, their accents. The running time is about 130 minutes. That’s quite some time to spend with a group of people — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence — playing psychological shell games. David O. Russell has built instability into the movie, which he directed and cowrote. It is basically a caper film, set in the late 1970s. But it’s a caper film in the way that origami is just a lot of folded-up paper.

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and his mistress, Sydney Prosser (Adams), are small-time New York con artists. They have a fantastic shtick. He plays a kind of impresario. He’s tall, lumpy, and sleazy-looking — like a cross between a used-car salesman and a local-access television host. She classes him up. Perched on Irving’s desk — a little leg, some cleavage, a volcanic eruption of red hair — she’s a dame from London with access to money for loans. She’s velvet. He’s velour. For a fee (about $5,000), they say they’ll get you the money but never do. A prospective mark turns out to be Richie DiMaso (Cooper), an FBI agent, who backs them into helping the bureau bring down other con artists.

The fair thing to do at this point is to cease with the plot. American Hustle is loosely based on the FBI’s so-called Abscam sting operation that brought down a handful of politicians on bribery and corruption charges. Basically, there’s a sheikh, some gangsters, and several occasions for characters to cavort in nightclubs that play the hits of Donna Summer. But the rest is a surprise. (The first image to show up onscreen is the sentence “Some of this actually happened.”) One reason not to belabor the details is that Russell’s sudden — and very fictional — reversals are part of the excitement of the experience. Nothing remains settled for long. Everyone is either scamming or being scammed. Most of them are scamming themselves.

Irv, Richie, and Sydney target the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, a shabbily dressed, bighearted, bigger-haired family man named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He meets with the gang in a hotel suite, smells a rat, and flees. Watching Carmine eventually succumb, you feel bad because you sense the exploitation of his innate civic goodness. There’s also the way Bale plays this part: Irv is unsightly and unseemly, but there is something about him that can’t be resisted. Mayor Polito might not know it, but some of that something is sexual. That’s his angle with Sydney, who, in turn, has a sharper sexual angle on both him and Richie.

Not unsymbolically, Irving owns a dry-cleaning business with Rosalyn (Lawrence), his feral cuckoo of a housewife. In one scene, he and Sydney stand inside the curve of the clothes conveyor and stare at each other. She removes his tinted glasses, and he stands stock-still and dumbstruck as shirts and coats and pants sail around them and their plastic casing caresses her hair. This is what passes for romance. With his defenses down, Irving shares his line of work with Sydney, then invites her to join him. She walks out of the room. But as he sits at his desk, kicking himself, a rather amazing thing occurs. This petite, pretty, dolorous American boomerangs back purring like an Englishwoman. She’s given herself a nom de scam — “Lady Edith Greensly” — and accepts his proposal.

American Hustle is another of Russell’s screwball farces. It’s as equally predicated upon calamity and delirium as Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, I [Heart] Huckabees, The Fighter, and Silver Linings Playbook. But it’s more antic and addled than the parties his last four movies were determined to be. He has situated the farce in the Long Island offices of the FBI, ritzy Manhattan hotels, and famous nightspots. He’s put it on the faces of the actors. He’s found Louis C.K., Michael Peña, and Robert De Niro to play featured parts that allow them to look askance at the lunacy even as they’re reluctant participants.

There was something smugly perfect about Flirting With Disaster and I [Heart] Huckabees. Russell’s artistic and philosophical ambitions were looking for a classic Hollywood home. The results were two wonderful movies that had wit and a director’s control but little soul. The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, on the other hand, were the sort of conventional Hollywood movies that you might have expected Russell to turn up his nose at. But he took both assignments seriously and contorted them enough to make them feel distinctive. Whatever it is that has led Russell to devise his version of a Hollywood movie, it’s nice to have. I could do without his tacked-on demand that farces end in familyhood the way romantic comedies end in marriage, but his rhythms and tonal shifts are musical.

Russell is 55 now, and he doesn’t seem out to prove anything. Dysfunction dominates American Hustle — sexual, conjugal, occupational, institutional, sartorial. Robert Altman’s movies could get that way, strange and exhilaratingly sloppy; sometimes Billy Wilder’s, too. Russell has matured into the messiness of this movie. After Sydney, as Lady Edith, tells Richie that their lovemaking has to wait until they’re actually in love, she kicks him out of the nightclub stall they’d been sharing, sits down on the toilet, and lets out a wail. She’s a party wolf, howling at the disco ball moon. That scene melts right into a different sort of club, where Carmine and Irving are dancing drunk to Tom Jones’s “Delilah.” The camera sways above them as if it’s sloshed, too.

The actors give the movie different sorts of mania. Cooper will never receive his due as a comedic actor. He’s too handsome and still seems a touch too douchey. But he owns that. He’s entirely physical here, strutting, speed-talking, stuttering, shifting. Richie shares a cramped apartment with his mother, keeps his hair in rollers, and skips out on his fiancée to paint the town with Lady Edith. Cooper was good in Silver Linings Playbook. He’s better here, playing a guy who can’t stop trying to upgrade himself (in love and at work) but who might be too stupid to keep up with everyone else in the game.

Both Adams and Bale bring out a nice cockiness. He doesn’t want to lose a scene to anyone, but Adams isn’t that sort of actress. If she sees you coming, she’ll get out of the way. Russell has given Adams two of her most complicated roles, parts that invert the naïveté at the core of her persona. In The Fighter, she was sweet but vulgar. Here, she’s sweet but psychologically disheveled. The beauty of Adams is her sense of strategy. She won’t take a part that doesn’t keep her ahead of the game.

Lawrence, meanwhile, has a good time as a woman who doesn’t appear to have had a complete thought in her life. Her mostly blonde hair just sits on top of her head as if she started doing it five years ago and forgot. She initially seems miscast. Is she going for a New York accent? Is she going for crazy? Can she play a semi-conniving dingbat? But she acts with a passion and humor and confidence that just wears you down. Bale deserves a prize simply for keeping a straight face in his scenes with her.

It’s easy to take Bale’s performance for granted. The comedy he’s doing is serious. He makes himself the center of a movie whose core concern is authenticity. Who can be trusted? What’s real? Who’s sane? The challenge for Russell is how to turn philosophy into cinema and comedy. One answer is props. Irv, for instance, wears a toupee. In the opening scene we see him, haggard and overweight, standing before a mirror, applying it to the bald spot in the middle of his head. It’s an actorly introduction, but for the rest of the movie you can’t stop staring at his hair — not because it’s upstaging Bale, but because it’s the movie’s first lie. Watching him pat it down and glue it, I thought about De Niro looking at himself bloated, demented, and pitiful at the end of Martin Scorsese’s great boxing epic. Does Russell know that he’s made a talkier fight movie? Raging Bullshit.

Smaug So there we all were before midnight on a Thursday, filing into an IMAX theater in Lincoln Center, hundreds of us, some in costumes, desperate to be among the very first to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This is the one in which the tiny burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a troupe of dwarfs confront a fire-breathing dragon — Smaug the Magnificent. They’re making their way toward the end of a trilogy, one that puts the slim 300-page J.R.R. Tolkien book on a deli slicer that’s scheduled to produce close to eight hours of lunch meat.

Part of what brought me out to watch it at midnight was the memory of seeing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in one day 10 years ago in an enormous packed movie theater on the eve of the opening of The Return of the King. That day remains one of my favorite moviegoing events. Jackson was in top form. He had astounding control over the harmony of the visual effects and live action. The movies had the sweep and sense of self-importance that a big fantasy series ought to have. The creatures were inventive and had personality, as did the actors playing the assortment of hobbits, wizards, and elves. Even when things were slow, they were never dull.

Jackson hasn’t been the same since. The Hobbit feels like a last resort. The first movie — An Unexpected Journey — was shot and projected at 48 frames per second. It was meant to impart dreaminess. But it was like watching someone get high without you. There was a rollicking sequence set amid the cavernous home of goblins. It was warm and surprising. Some of it seemed to glow. The sequence was a reminder that Jackson still had the old magic, but it was also a theme-park ride that was beside the point of Tolkien’s book. The new movie doubles down on the amusement and pointlessness, but without the frolic and shimmer of that goblin passage or the lively concurrent encounter between Bilbo and the tragic Gollum.

Desolation of Smaug looks as dreary as the title would lead you to believe. The whole thing lingers in the memory as piles of sludge and ash. The movie’s achievement is the duration of the adventure sequences. One features a comical use of a barrel and fake-looking rapids, but the movie rarely imparts any visual wonder. Smaug is something to see. It bellows in the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, who, with this film, his work as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, and his performance as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate closes out his year of spiteful distemper. But Smaug himself lacks the discursive manipulation that made him memorably unsafe in the book. Here he’s just an excuse to do some flying and expel flames. How, at that size and with all that fire, Smaug doesn’t incinerate any dwarfs is a mystery.

Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas, the elf prince, and is joined by Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, who, in her elf costume, is a ringer for Liv Tyler, who played a half-elf in the first trilogy. These two spend a lot of scenes leaping and slicing and spinning and stabbing. More than once you can see a digital version of the actors perform the motions like a kind of stunt-choreography on cruise control. After a while you get tired of trying to keep up, and it’s not because you’re watching a movie at two in the morning. It’s because all the cross-cutting loses the action and stalls the momentum. Whole encounters begin before previous ones have ended. This is the most impatient 160-minute movie you will ever see.

Before Desolation of Smaug began, the audience stood to cheer a special guest: Sir Ian McKellen. He plays Gandalf the Grey and came out to thank the audience. He and his pal Patrick Stewart are doing Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett down on Broadway. He said the movie was for the fans, that Jackson remains deeply committed to Tolkien, and that the dragon bit goes on too long. It was the height of class and candor. (He was right about the dragon.)

But you don’t leave this movie satisfied that Jackson has given his all. You leave feeling like you’re being strung along, aware that, with these films, the line between fandom and fraud is fine. This isn’t to say that the FBI in Russell’s movie needs to look into Jackson’s. But this is no longer impassioned filmmaking. It’s another scam.

Filed Under: Art, General topics

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris