The first thing we see in “American Hustle” is Christian Bale putting together his hair. He plays someone completely bald on top but with long hair on the sides, and with the aid of some glue, a forlorn hairpiece and a comb-over, he arranges himself in the mirror and goes out to face the world.
It’s an arresting and strange opening for director David O. Russell’s exuberant new film - arresting because there’s no taking your eyes off of Bale, who looks awful, having gained 50 pounds for the role. (He gained the weight not because he had to, but because that’s just the kind of thing he does.) And it’s strange because the spectacle leads an entire audience to temporarily disrespect the guy, when in fact he’s our hero. Even that hair is worthy of respect. Here is a resourceful individual who will do whatever he needs to do, including cultivating an illusion of hair in that distinctly hair-loving era of the late 1970s.
“American Hustle” is loosely based on the Abscam scandal, which was crazy enough even before Russell and co-screenwriter Eric Singer got hold of it. A sting operation by the FBI in which various political officeholders were offered bribes on behalf of a (fake) Arab sheikh, it led to multiple convictions, as well as to charges that the FBI unfairly entrapped people.
The film changes names and motivations, adds characters and alters relationships, but one thing is true - the FBI really did hire a professional con man to put over the scam. Here that’s Irving (Bale), a man from the Bronx streets (Bale’s accent is perfection). His partner is his girlfriend, Sydney (Amy Adams), who hides her own hardscrabble background behind a posh English accent. Both are driven by a need to reinvent themselves as something splendid and glamorous, which makes them quintessentially American dreamers, not just hustlers.
“American Hustle” is Russell’s best film, one that finds him in that ideal zone of spontaneity and complete control. He employs voice-over narration, then drops it when he doesn’t need it anymore. He dresses Bradley Cooper, as an ambitious FBI agent, in home-permed hair and garish ‘70s fashions, and he gives him the freedom to act just as high-strung here as he did playing a manic-depressive in “The Silver Linings Playbook.” Much is extreme, and yet in keeping with an era of vulgarity and bacchanalian excess.
As Cooper’s much-abused boss, Louis C.K. is the focus of some very funny scenes.
Yet the comedy doesn’t inhibit Russell from dropping into an ominous mood when necessary, as when the FBI agent starts casting to land a Mafia boss. Robert De Niro plays the boss as a no-nonsense old murderer, and he’s threatening enough, just sitting there talking, so as to hover over the rest of the movie like a poison cloud. Russell (“Three Kings,” “The Fighter”) has always had a talent for harmonizing tragedy and comedy, seriousness and outlandishness, all within a precise tone that allows for a wide range of emotions and effects. But his hand has never been more sure.
Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s young wife, embodies the movie’s tonal range. She is funny and alarming, often at the same time. Rosalyn, who tricked Irving into a marriage he can’t escape, is a complete idiot who thinks she’s brilliant, and a monster of selfishness who thinks she’s giving. Lawrence’s performance lets us see the twists and turns of her thought processes, even as she masters an Eastern dialect and an outsize floozy manner that’s the antithesis of her usual screen self. She’s remarkable.
But it’s Adams and Bale who are the film’s heart and soul, the honorable crooks in a sea of piranhas, the movie’s truthful core around which all the madness revolves. Adams, who goes through the movie almost flopping out of her low-cut ‘70s gowns and blouses, is especially poignant playing an intelligent person with the least power and the most at stake. It’s fascinating watching her think her way through as she does the most with a bad hand. And Bale brings great suppressed feeling to his scenes with a goodhearted New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), whose life Irving is being forced to wreck.
The re-creation of the 1970s will please everyone who was there and instruct everyone who wasn’t. Yes, it was crass. Yet the ‘70s were like the 1920s, in that years later you can take one look and know the decade, and it wasn’t all ugly. The disco scene, in particular, is like a time travel, with not just the clothes and the lights done right, but also the choreography, which re-creates what you’d normally see on a Saturday night: people dancing in a line, with all the guys doing the same move over and over, revolving their two fists in a circle and then clapping their hands. Mick Lasalle/SF Gate
12 years a slave
Solomon Northup, a black man from upstate New York, went to sleep on an April night in 1841 in Washington, D.C. - well-fed, albeit woozy, having just dined in the company of two affable gentlemen who had offered to pay good wages for him to play his violin. When he woke the next morning, Northup was shackled, in a dungeon a few streets from the Capitol. He had been drugged and abducted and was about to be smuggled south, to be sold into slavery.
When he insisted he was a free man, with a wife and children back in Saratoga Springs, he was beaten. And beaten again. It was the beginning of a nightmare odyssey, and it is the beginning of Steve McQueen’s remarkable 12 Years a Slave.
A tale of impossible cruelty and incredible survival, this essential piece of filmmaking embodies, in microcosm, the long and shameful chapter of American history, when men, women, and children, because of the color of their skin, were oppressed, commodified, abused. It speaks to the courage and resilience of one man, the savagery of many, and the potential, for both good and for ill, in us all.
If that’s not enough, it’s just darn good storytelling, a picture made with impeccable artistry and intelligence, and with actors - Chiwetel Ejiofor foremost among them - who bring these heroes and villains, innocents and malefactors, to life, wholly, and sometimes horrifically. Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s star in Hunger and Shame, plays Edwin Epps, the third of Northup’s owners - a bitter man who lords over his Louisiana plantation, quoting scripture and whipping the slaves who do not do his bidding, or do not meet the daunting quotas of cotton they must pick.
It is shocking to think that apart from a handful of blaxploitation titles - and Quentin Tarantino’s jokey, off-key take on that genre, Django Unchained - the subject of slavery, from the perspective of the enslaved, has never really been addressed on-screen before. McQueen, the black British director, remedies this failing, fearlessly.
Adapting Northup’s 1853 memoir, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley take the viewer down a surreal rabbit hole into a world of injustice, where the established social order is completely out of whack - and nobody, except the human chattel, seems to notice.
Ejiofor, who played the Royal Navy interpreter in Steven Spielberg’s slave mutiny film Amistad (that legal case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841, the same year Northup was kidnapped), gives body and soul to his role in 12 Years a Slave. Beaming great pride and dignity as the story begins, Northup is beaten down - and, in one gut-turning scene, strung up in a noose, left to hang. As he goes from disbelief and outrage to resignation and regret - from a determination to win freedom to merely a determination to survive - the change in Northup, whose slave name is Platt, is palpable.
The supporting roles, from the mercenary trader played by Paul Giamatti, to the morally compromised plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch, to Lupita Nyong’o’s slave girl (the object of Epps’ admiration), to Paul Dano’s bullying, small-minded overseer, are all top tier, memorable. Brad Pitt, wearing an Amish-style beard, is Samuel Bass, a carpenter from Canada who comes to work on the Epps plantation - sharing the screen with Ejiofor, and then Fassbender. Pitt delivers the movie’s most transparently reflective dialogue - Bass is the movie’s conscience, our collective conscience - and he does so, while hammering nails and raising beams, with a down-home grace and gravity.
McQueen, using a clanging score by Hans Zimmer, interwoven with fiddle jigs and spirituals, favors long takes, surveying the landscape, the faces, the bodies doing hard labor in the Southern heat. There are images that have the formal composition of old daguerreotypes. And the period details, the clothes, the houses, ring with authenticity.
At the same time, as we follow Solomon Northup on his harrowing journey, it all feels immediate, urgent. “Your story, it is amazing,” Bass says to Northup, “and in no good way.”
12 Years a Slave is history, but it resonates, in profound ways, in the here and now. Steven Rea/Philidelphia Inquirer