Monday, January 6, 2014


 At the screening of American Hustle that I attended, people started filing out within 20 minutes. At first, I thought they were going to the bathroom, but they never came back. I didn't blame them. The film was slow, and the 1970s setting, at long last, feels played out.  After all the critical hoopla and Golden Globe  nominations, the customers must've expected something grander,  sexier, funnier, whatever. I was tempted to leave, too, but I stuck with it, waiting for the great performances I'd been hearing about.

Christian Bale is in it, 25 pounds overweight, his hair in a hideous comb-over, grunting at people in a kind of cartoonish New Yawk accent (He reminded me of Al Pacino as "Big Boy" Caprice in Dick Tracy). Bale plays a con man involved in everything from art fraud to money laundering. He has a girlfriend (Amy Adams) who dons a fake British accent and assists him in his scams. He has a wife, too (Jennifer Lawrence, in the sort of showy role that gets a lot of attention at awards time). The wife stays home,  busts  his chops, and reads self-help books. (Strangely, the self-help book she's reading wouldn't come out for nearly 20 years after the film takes place, so maybe she has a time machine, too.)

Bale's illegal activities are exposed by a hotheaded FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper.  They strike a deal - Bale and Adams will help Cooper bust some big government types, and he'll let them go. Or something like that. They focus on a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) who mingles with mobsters and, they hope, will be caught taking a bribe. Robert De Niro is here, too, as a Florida gangster. He creates more menace and drama in his brief scene than the rest of the cast can muster in the film's two-hour running time. Sure, the cast works hard, displaying the sort of gross American acting that critics have come to praise in recent years, but I think you could've taken five other competent actors, put them in the same costumes, and achieved a similar result.

It's all based loosely on the Abscam scandal of the late '70s, so that's why we're bombarded with so many ugly hairstyles and hairy chests. There's even the obligatory scene in a disco. So clichéd is our understanding of the 1970s that there will one day be a film about the Watergate scandal, with Nixon and Kissinger dancing under a mirror ball. American Hustle isn't content to be goofy, though. It  takes itself seriously enough to offer such painful bromides as, “We’re all conning ourselves in one way or another—just to get through life.” Ugh. If that sounds profound to you, maybe you'll like American Hustle.

Foot lovers may like it, too, for director David O. Russell is apparently enamored of Adams' feet. Every scene Adams appears in begins with the camera on her tanned tootsies, then panning upwards. We see her barefoot. We see her in slutty shoes.  Russell's love of Adams' feet is so pronounced that  even in a scene where Bale is suffering a minor heart attack,  the camera jumps quickly to Adams' feet while she gets into her car. It's the most blatant case of foot fetishism since Tarantino's Death Proof. (Russell doesn't show the same devotion to Ms. Lawrence's feet, although he inexplicably lets her sing the old Paul McCartney hit, 'Live and Let Die.' Seriously, she sings the whole song, for no apparent reason. I guess this was supposed to be funny, the same way comb-overs and wide lapels are supposed to be funny...)

Foot love aside, American Hustle features a few good acting turns, but no great ones.  Most of it feels like a tired imitation of other, better films.

Giuseppe Tornatore's The Best Offer starts as a psychological thriller, segues into a sort of fairy tale romance, and ends on a bleak note that Vladimir Nabokov would've appreciated. I might've preferred if the movie stayed on one of the first two roads, but even with the burden of a few too many twists, there are rewards here to be found if you're patient.

Geoffrey Rush plays art auctioneer Virgil Oldman (Get it? Old man...get it?), the sort of unctuous type who not only wears gloves 24 hours a day, but has a magnificent closet loaded with gloves for all occasions. The closet, which looks to have been designed by Stanley Kubrick for A Clockwork Orange, splits open to reveal the many works of art he has acquired over the decades, all portraits of women. He's a lonely man, somewhat frightened of females. He's also a germaphobe, and prone to superstition. He dines alone in the finest restaurants, but when a friendly waiter offers him a piece of birthday cake, he won't eat it because his birthday is still a day away.

Rush is fascinating as Oldman, dry and cold in his personal life, yet rather witty dynamic on the auctioneer's podium. He's called upon by a mysterious woman who wishes to have her family's estate put up for auction. The catch: the woman is an agoraphobic and won't come out of her room, conducting business like a shut-in. When things don't go her way, she hides behind a locked door and screams like a howler monkey (Vocally, she reminded me of Bjork's emotional rages in Dancer in the Dark). Oldman grows infatuated with her, until their relationship takes on a Beauty and the Beast kind of feel. He becomes a sort of father/confessor/shrink for her, listening to her complaints. He even takes it upon himself to do her grocery shopping. I liked this part of the story. I liked their cat and mouse game, and I liked seeing Oldman come out of himself to care for someone even more emotionally damaged than himself.

The woman (Sylvia Hoeks) gradually comes out of hiding, but the unlikely romance that develops doesn't feel right. It all seems a bit too good to be true. There are subplots: Oldman finds pieces of an antique automaton in the woman's basement, and brings the pieces to a young mechanic friend (Jim Sturgess) to assemble. Oldman's friend Billy (Donald Sutherland)   sometimes helps Oldman at the auctions, helping to drive up prices on certain items, but seems bitter that his own paintings have never made any money.  Oldman, who has never been in love, begins telling his young friend about the woman, asking for tips on courtship. There are hints that something is wrong,  though, and Oldman's friends behave strangely around him. The mysterious woman allegedly supports herself by writing novels under a pseudonym, but we never learn what they are. At times she  seems to disappear, sometimes within her own massive home. There are trap doors and secret rooms everywhere in this movie.

I wish I could say everything is sen up neatly for a dramatic climax, but instead, we get a lot of weird stuff, including a dwarf who is a math genius, a violent street mugging, and a bunch of betrayals. If you're familiar with Lolita, you can almost guess how the whole mess turns out, with Oldman standing in as a less predatory Humbert Humbert. Still, I liked it. The sweeping camerawork by Fabio Zamarion, the art direction and set decoration by Andrea Di Palma and Raffaella Giovannetti, the original music by Ennio  Morricone, and of course, Rush's portrayal of Oldman, add up to something that may not create a satisfying whole, but is quite exquisite in its own way.

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