This will be the first in a series of reviews in the coming weeks before the Academy Awards taking a look at the nominees for Best Picture. Yes. All nine of them. Such a burden, I know, but The Scrivener lives to serve.
There is a scene in David O. Russell's American Hustle that, for me, provides the very reason why he is one of the most vibrant and interesting directors working in the game today. Irving Rosenfeld, played here by Christian Bale, couldn't be happier. A life-long con-artist who has always kept things just within a containable range. Jobs just small enough so as to never draw attention. He has, however, gained a new partner in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) not just in "business" but in love as well. Jack Jones' vocals come through clear as a bell as "I've Got Your Number" sweeps them both up into a moment of pure joy. They're dancing their way across the street to a Manhattan ballroom and soon are arm in arm, and clearly lost in each other. Russell, unlike so many directors today, knows how to make use of the camera. The sweeping shots and intimate angles of Irving and Sydney in that brief aside showcase just how in-tune with this ensemble writer/director David O. was and just how alive, funny and fucking delicious this movie was.
So, this is a film that begins with a simple admittance of "Some of this actually happened." It serves as a stark contrast, in tone anyway, to his other works like Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter. It's a reunion, really, as all the key players are all veterans of his past glory. The film has the feel of Scorcese at his most madcap and it shows. The music. The motor-mouth characters. The allusions to "Goodfellas" and even P.T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights" are apt, I think, but it doesn't quite reach those heights.
Russell approaches the 1970s Abscess operation with little regard to the actual details of what and who it happened to but, rather, the sheer ridiculous nature of the entire thing. It was, in case you didn't know, the government's attempt, in the post-Watergate era, to attempt to fight political corruption by nabbing a small number of politicians red-handed dealing in bribery, fraud and so forth. The focus here, is more on the central figures of that plot: The Bronx-born con-artist in over his head, Irving Rosenfeld. The gilded royal, Edith Greensly serving as comforting and sensuous face of the investment scam, and the overly ambitious Federal agent, Richie DiMaso. The constant swerves and slight of hand that one would expect from a film about a con job are all present. It is a constant parade of deception, rogues and mobsters and it is made all the better for it.
Ensemble pieces are always a gamble and, more often than not, they fall flat. Christian Bale, who gained nearly 50 pounds for the role, is simultaneously a shark in a jewel-toned velvet jack and immensely emotional man. He loves his adopted son and his wife. Oh he also has fallen head over heels in love with his partner-in-crime, Sidney. Irving is the crook that can always make you drink the poison he's clearly laid out in front of you. Bale has always been a fantastic actor. His technique and willingness to mold himself into the role, inhabit the skin of a character, has always been admirable. He has, however, sometimes been guilty of holding back the very human part of himself in his roles. Here, however, he plays Irving with such pathos and such depth that it was hard to not find myself loving this liar by the end of it. That moment I alluded to earlier says it all. The quiet moments of his have such impact. Not to mention the most epic comb-over in the history of cinematic comb-overs.
His compatriot and mistress, Sydney is a girl from Albuquerque who sought to reinvent herself in the Big Apple. Her entanglement with Irving after a chance meeting at mutual friend's pool party results in a torrid affair and a mutually beneficial business relationship. Amy Adams has never looked better. Honeyed sunlight dapples her every nuance and she just oozes sensuality. She crafts a new persona for herself, Edith Greensly, a London-born beauty with serious banking connections and she gladly collects the checks of every sucker who walks in through Irving's office door. This is so much further down the rabbit hole than Amy Adams has ever been with a role. It is a rich and nuanced portrait of a woman still reinventing herself throughout, riding the wave of excess and trying to eek out some sort of semblance of survival in a fucked up situation.
Richie DiMaso's entry into their lives, however, results in a brush with prison time and a plot hatched from the sheer drive of an agent sick and tired of sitting behind a desk. Cooper is manic and sweet, earnest and revolting at times. He has swagger though immediately wilts in the presence of Sydney who he can't help but adoringly stare at with big puppy eyes. Jeremy Renner offers up a sympathetic and, ultimately, worthwhile portrayal. Carmine Polito, the Bobby Darin pompadour sporting mayor of Camden, N.J. just wants to do what's right for his community. If it takes a little greasing of certain wheels to do so then so be it. The bromance that develops between Irving and Carmine is actually quite endearing. The immense work of these (great as it is) pales in comparison, however, to Jennifer Lawrence's bravura as Rosalyn Rosenfeld.
There are, without a doubt, no other young actresses working in Hollywood today that command your attention like Jennifer Lawrence. Rosalyn is first introduced to us after nearly burning down their house. She fell asleep under a sun-lamp. She appears more harlequin than wife at first, burned skin and genuine hurt upon her face. Her gravity defying hair and lunacy are a thin veneer for the simmering sadness beneath. She's terrible at keeping secrets, tough for a con-man to be married to her I suppose, but as manipulative and maddening as they come. It's easy to see why he married her in the first place. She was a true delight. She steals every scene she's in and it is a marvel to behold. It also serves as a testament to the skill of Russell here and also the fact that he gives a damn about his female characters just as much as the male.
The film isn't without its problems, though. Russell, who applied his own take on a Eric Winger original script, tends to focus more on the jagged and two-faced nature of the con and the people involved more than any of the actual plot itself. Those are more just simple beats to give something for the actors to hang their performances upon. Attention to the minute details was paid in regards to the setting and it pays off with many of those very things about the 70's making the film feel all the more alive and deliver on some decent laughs. The film itself is actually fairly humorous though I wouldn't really consider it a comedy per se. Punch-lines give way to atmospheric-based chuckles and it all works so well. The pacing gets a little problematic mid-way through as it drags just a bit but picks up steam again in the third act. It felt, at times, a bit more like a showcase for a bunch of great acting as opposed to the need to tell a real story. It is staged well but doesn't attempt to get lost in the politics or the climate of the times. It, in a way, works to its favor in that way. The acting is so damn good that it's fairly easy to look past the flaws, though. It is, however, immensely entertaining and an ensemble piece that actually works.