American Hustle by David O. Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

 

David O. Russell’s latest caper American Hustle is fundamentally more interested in its characters than doing anything with them.

The story is a fictionalized account of the FBI ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s. Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale), a con man, falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the couple start running a con operation together. Everything seems perfect at first, but Irving refuses to leave his adopted son and wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce him. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Irving and Sydney in a loan scam, they are forced to help him make four arrests for their release.

What happens with the characters never matches the depth of their characterizations. As the narrative switches perspectives and cross-sections into the inner monologue of several characters, it keeps the viewer perpetually wondering who is the main character of the story. The con, or more specifically the plot, is cast to the side. The joy of watching the construction of the con is not present; O. Russell is not interested in those nuts and bolts.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are all very good and very free in their parts. Louis C.K. even has a funny supporting role as Bradley Cooper’s FBI superior who is frequently bullied. Despite of the nominations, the acting is not Oscar worthy. It just seems like it should be.

O. Russell directs like an acting coach running a class exercise, having the actors improvise scenes and go off script to no end. The scenes do feel raw and unrehearsed. At its best, energy is building and chaos seems to be imminent, like a lit fuse burning its way to the end of a dynamite stick that we cannot see. At its worst, it feels plodding and going over information we already know. The inverse effect is it makes the actors, as good as they are in their parts, look like they are playing dress up. So as much as it wants to be an anarchic character study, the final result is oddly shallow.

American Hustle does not quite live up to its awards hype. The truth is, it was overhyped from the beginning, and somehow David O. Russell has everybody believing he has made something good. Or somehow the people just want to believe he has made something good. Good for him, but I really doubt anybody will be talking about this film six months from now when the hype dies down.

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The Heat by Paul Feig

The Heat by Paul Feig

An uptight FBI Special Agent is paired with a foul-mouthed Boston cop to take down a ruthless drug lord.

The Heat is a comedy that brings both familiar and fresh genre elements. The buddy cop movie elements are the familiar portion, but what’s fresh is the comedy pairing of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Most notably, it’s a buddy cop movie that stars two women.

Melissa McCarthy is a living comedy engine. The key to her performance is that she’s not approaching the part as a comedienne, but as a dramatic actress as well. She delivers every line like her character is totally serious. The story is partly about the social classes in Boston and it is established that McCarthy’s Mullins comes from a tough Boston neighborhood. She incorporates that into her performance. In a lesser actress’s hands, it would have been raunchy for the sake of being raunchy.

Sandra Bullock plays social awkwardness well and a good straight man to McCarthy. Again she brings her charming personable star quality and it’s hard not to like her for being so self-deprecating. This role has a similar arc to her character in Ms. Congeniality – an uptight by-the-book cop who needs to learn to let go. Suffice to say, Bullock and McCarthy make a great comedic duo.

The action scenes take a back seat and comedy is the main priority. The entire cast is full of comedians and comedy-capable actors. Standup comedian Bill Burr, Jane Curtin and Marlon Wayans add a variety of comedy dimensions with their supporting roles. Thomas Wilson, famous for being Biff in the Back to the Future films, as Melissa McCarthy’s emasculated police captain brought a huge gaping smile on my face. It was like watching Biff being upstaged in an alternate timeline.

Bridesmaids 
director Paul Feig understands that there is no moral barometer for comedy and isn’t afraid to risk bad taste for laughs. They hold nothing sacred here. There’s a running gag with an albino that had me in stitches. Underneath all the comedy, the movie is subtly about women working in a male-dominated workplace. I like how the film stays true to this concept. There’s no love subplot with a male suitor and it even draws comedy from women dealing with misogyny.

A great deal of improvisation was done in the comedic scenes. Despite of that, the film is well edited. The comedy never stops the story from moving forward and it seems a lot of comedy babies were killed in the editing room. I laughed consistently throughout the entire film. It’s a well made comedy by people that like and understand its workings. Now that they’ve announced a sequel, I look forward to that as well.

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Jon “Don Jon ”Martello is dedicated to his family, friends, his apartment, church and one night stands with women. But none of these compare to the transcendent bliss he achieves with pornography. Dissatisfied, he embarks on a journey to find a more gratifying sex life, but ends up learning larger lessons of life and love from two very different women.

Don Jon marks as the debut film of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is the writer, director and star of the film. What’s most praiseworthy about JGL’s direction is how he puts the audience into the world view of his lead character Don Jon. It makes a good cinematic explanation of how Don Jon prefers pornography over bedding real women, a character trait that can easily be viewed as unlikeable or disgusting if mishandled. We never really venture outside his world, but yet Don Jon’s views seem logical enough to keep the audience invested in what happens to him.

Directing duties aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ability to transform himself amazes me. Having seen him in Inception, (500) Days of Summer and The Dark Knight Rises have familiarized me with the sound of his real voice, but I was still astounded by Don Jon’s macho New Jersey-accented voice. I was carefully listening to Don Jon’s dialogue and couldn’t detect any hints of Gordon-Levitt’s real voice underneath. It is artfully consistent and was the core element that sold me on the Don Jon character.

Scarlett Johansson has been said to be a wooden actress in the past. I think this was probably one of her better performances. This character felt like a real person to me. I have met and dated girls like Barbara. Furthermore, the allure of Scarlett Johansson is cinematically ramped up to eleven. She hasn’t been filmed to this level of sexiness since Match Point. For fans of the Black Widow, I’d even argue that this tops that. This is probably more to the credit of the direction. We feel Don Jon’s hunger for her. And like Don Jon, she too mesmerized me. And not just cause of her looks. She seemed like the ideal girlfriend at first and couldn’t really see her character flaws till late in the film. When I realized her character flaws, I was surprised I didn’t see them before. That was a very compelling moment for me in the theater. Honestly, Johansson’s character distracted me so much, I would need a second viewing to tell you anything about the Julianne Moore character.

Seeing Tony Danza as Don Jon’s father Jon Sr. takes me back to my childhood. He was the only man on TV who can make my dad cackle like a fiend in the English language. Danza’s presence adds warmth and makes for a convincing father. Brie Larson gets to do a Silent Bob type gag that is quite amusing.

The film’s brutally truthful display about the realities of men and women as a source for comedy, while handled tastefully with charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hits a little too close to home. I have had discussions like this with a girlfriend similar to the Scarlett Johansson character. It accurately captures why it’s hard for men to explain the joys of pornography to the opposite sex. As Louis C.K. once put it, men just need to release so they don’t go out and murder somebody. That’s really it, but it’s not a pleasing satisfying statement to convince a girlfriend with. I’d argue that any girl that needs an explanation wouldn’t be convinced anyways because they probably have double standards. The film seems to take the same stance. All that said, the film managed to end on a poignant tender note.

In the end, Don Jon is somewhat of an odd animal. I wouldn’t personally recommend it as a date movie with your girlfriend, for the very fact that it might just open the awkward discussion of “How much pornography do you watch?” with your girlfriend. I still think people should see it as it is a competent debut film.

So on a more politically neutral note, I’d say guys would have more fun with it watching it with their guy friends and likewise with girls and their girlfriends. It’s probably better to be charmed by it separately than leaving the theater together primed for an awkward argument.

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Jim Norton: American Degenerate

American Degenerate by Jim Norton

Recently I have seen a new side to comedian Jim Norton. This year Norton showed a more charming intellectual side when he debated with Lindy West over the topic of rape jokes on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. He presented a strong logical mind and gave well-constructed counter arguments. Aside from joking that he and West should have ended the debate by making out, Norton’s side of the argument came off stronger at the end.

That matured charm continues in American Degenerate, his second comedy special from Epix, mostly in the form of a smile. Specifically, I mean the “I’m just joking” smile post-punchline. It consistently reminds the audience that he’s joking and reassures them to laugh along. In the past, Norton’s graphically crude jokes have ended with such conviction, at times it was hard to laugh. I immediately pondered about how true his jokes or perversions were. The charm shown here makes a substantial difference in his grotesque-oriented humor. Looking thinner and healthier, he delivers his jokes in a laid-back fashion and we are now able to laugh at both his perversions AND his mind.

And for that, this new hour act gets better as it goes along. Norton holds nothing back. He talks about the John Travolta masseuse lawsuit, the Colorado shootings and gun control. But the highlights for me were the self-revealing bits, like the bit about an annoying nudist at his local gym and a self-deprecating chunk where Norton talks about having sleep apnea (a condition I never heard of before) where the patient needs to wear a breathing mask to sleep. Norton even talks about how he hates bloggers, specifically how audiences like to blog and nitpick what offends them. That comedians shouldn’t have to apologize for what they say, reiterating the point he made on Totally Biased.

As an aspiring standup comedian, I agree with that statement. Comedians shouldn’t have to apologize and it’s silly how audiences nitpick what offends them. This is a mindset that audiences don’t realize themselves, so it’s good that that thought is being communicated out to the stratosphere. And on the topic of freedom, perhaps the most enjoyable part about this special is watching Norton reveling in his freedom of speech and openly talking about his thoughts, political views and sexuality, meanwhile laughing at himself in the process. He does all this unapologetically. And for that, it’s aptly titled American Degenerate.