I thought I’d start the new year by trying to get to the cinema more, partly because there’s a lot of good stuff around (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Anchorman 2, Monument Men) and partly because I live five minutes walk from an independent cinema here in Stratford, so there’s really no excuse. I chose David O’Russell’s new ensemble picture about (in the loosest of terms) about a corruption scandal in New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. Pedantry check: while it does bear a passing resemblance, in reality it’s only framed around events, the names are changed (to protect the not very innocent).
That out of the way, it’s a hugely enjoyable film. The cast is superb, working very much as an ensemble, even though you’d argue (like The Fighter) the star of the show, while pitched behind Bale’s crack addict (in The Fighter) brother or overweight con-man here, is Amy Adams. She’s proven serious acting chops once again, the driving force behind the men, and the story, and a world away from Disney fare of the last decade. But part of the joy is just how great the film looks, and, more importantly, feels. Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about style over substance, but that’s a lazy criticism. This isn’t Anchorman, it’s pitched fantastically into the late 70s, and there’s little flamboyance above what’s needed to tell the story.
As for the plot, it skirts a little close to pastiche at times, in terms of the Goodfellas-style focus pulls and bar scenes, but it’s all about the characters, staying much in close-up, to get us close to the action, which works especially well in the scenes with De Niro, which crackle with menace (and imminent collapse), and in the second half of the film, as things slowly unravel. There’s no great payoff, even though the ‘real events’ are given a veneer by Russell, reminding us that this is life, and there’s never a happy ending (cue “some of the actually happened” at the start).
Bale is in superb, shape-shifted form as Irving. Compare this to The Machinist, and you have to wonder if he’s the actor most willing to destroy his form to inhabit the role. He’s not afraid of walking around, gut out. He also gets the fine line between crafty con artist and flawed human perfect, in fact all the characters interweave really well, whether it’s Adams’ ballsy and strong fellow con, Cooper’s curly-haired and increasingly wayward FBI agent, Penner’s Elvis-haired mayor, and Lawrence’s agoraphobic wife. You can sense how much they’re enjoying themselves in every scene, even when it’s all going to pieces. Despite the fact this is a criminal caper, you still feel sympathy, even though most of the characters are pretty unlikable.
The music is superb – think Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Live And Let Die, A Horse With No Name, I Feel Love, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – and adds to the experience greatly, (and as an aside, it’s so great to see attention to a good soundtrack when the film’s so clearly lodged in its time) and it’s one of the many reasons why I barely looked at my watch for the two hours-plus running time.
It’s a classic tale of American life, of crime, corruption, politics (in passing) but more than anything about people. And it could’ve come across as a lazy pastiche, but it was a hugely enjoyable trip, at times almost a romp, that’s carried by its stars and its director. It could’ve been overacted, but actually, there’s a nice understatement it much of it, even when the scenes are being laid on thick (the toilet scene in the casino with Adams and Lawrence for starters). Even O Russell, whose career reached something of a crossroads at the divisive I Heart Huckabees (I thought it was self-indulgent nonsense), where his behind-the-camera antics were both cringeworthy and aggressive, (and widely reported) seems to have righted the ship, and reigned in much of his difficulties (though not all), and since then he’s put out three award-worthy films in The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. This has already picked up nominations for the four main actors, director and screenplay in the Golden Globes.
So forget the criticisms, and just enjoy what’s a beautifully acted, superbly shot, dryly funny film that captures the world-weary transition from the 1970s in New Jersey in all its glory.