‘American Hustle’

A Story Set In NYC, 1978? Count Me In

Spoiler Alert!

Got it? Good.

Okay, so forget the amazing cast for a moment. This movie is only partly about that. The rest of the movie is plot and dialogue and all those things that make sense of it which is the normal movie deal, but the truly appealing thing about this film is its production design and costume design. From Christian Bale’s hairpiece to Amy Adams’ insanely pointy high heels to Bradley Cooper’s tight curls and beard and chains look to Jennifer Lawrence’s piled-high-blonde-mess hair to an appearance by Robert DeNiro as the scary mafia don sporting Ray Ban wayfarer frames as regular glasses to Jeremy Renner’s *amazing* bouffant do, this film for me, was all about the glory of production design.

I know some people love Edwardian period pieces with the hats and hair and frocks and rollers. I just love period pieces set in the 1970s. There. I’ve said it. And if they can nail the look, the vibe, the mood, the feel, it gets an extra 3 stars out f 5 from me.

So really, we’re only talking about whether this movie deserves another two stars with its writing direction, acting, cinematography, editing, and sound combined, is a worthy question.

What’s Good About It

A complicated long con that involves the FBI is an interesting setup. What gets even more interesting is how the story covers a great area of corruption, which in the light of recent events in NSW, seems exactly to be the kind of problem a Federal Agency should be looking into. It’s made clear in the film that Renner’s Carmine Polito does take the money, but only because he is prevailed upon to take the money by Bale’s Irving. This opens the door to further busts of politicians who take money but it is clearly entrapment. It’s certainly an interesting take on the Abscam chapter of he FBI.

The editing is pretty snappy and it gets through a lot of complicated story in a quick sequences. Perhaps that too is an homage to the 1970s films that did a lot of adventurous cutting that died out in the 1980s as studios decided to buy the snake oil sold by story consultants that flashbacks didn’t work and that stories should go from the beginning to the end in a linear fashion. This film clearly shows the folly of such ways with its clever construction and juxtaposition of scenes.

The disco scene is also a big winner with its references to ‘Saturday Day Night fever’. Cooper and Adams do a credible pastiche of Travolta and Gorny’s moves from the earlier film. It’s a weird kind of pleasure because it telescopes 1978 popular culture down to a bunch of  shots and dance moves and then goes back to the plot. But the film is full of such pleasures. DeNiro’s appearance as the big mobster boss from Florida evokes at once ‘The Godfather II’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Goodfellas’. The fact that it is talking about Atlantic City alone evokes ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – and it even has a couple of actors from the TV series doing cameo roles. It’s a film for film buffs. It’s almost a tragedy they couldn’t find a role for Joe Pesci.

Oh, and the cars, man! Those 1970s American beasts of Detroit…

What’s Bad About It

In trying to capture the 1970s ‘look’, the cinematography veers towards the lighting style of the 1970s which is flat and hard. Apart from the fact that it’s very unattractive, it makes the film less compelling than if it had been shot with more sculpting of shadows. The 1970s films looked that way because budgets were thin and the film stock was slow. You had to blast 2k and 5k lights to get any kind of reading. I think there were better ways of conveying the 1970s than going for that 1970s film look.

Also, I know they’re great songs but it leans too heavily on the hits of the 1970s. Yes, Paul McCartney and Wings’ ‘Live and Let Die’ is a great song for the big transition; but this is like the third film where I’ve seen it used outside of the Bond movie ‘Live and Let Die’. The best one would have been ‘Grosse Point Blank’ where Martin Q. Blank emerges from his car to see the house he grew up in has been turned into a convenience store. If you can’t beat that one, maybe you shouldn’t be using that song.

What’s Interesting About It

The ricochet of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ runs right through this story. Not only do we see the familiar mugs of Shea Whigham (Eli in BE) and Jack Huston (Richard in BE), we’re regaled with the remains of an Atlantic City casino. There’s something poetic in the casting of Jack Huston as one of the gangsters awaiting Irving and Agent DiMaso.

The interest in Atlantic City as a story location is growing as a result of ‘Boardwalk Empire’. Even an innocuous film like ‘Imogene’ sits astride of modern day Atlantic City. At the end of the day it seems blatantly obvious that the mix of politics, construction and gambling forms such a phantasmagorical nexus of corruption. This is true for the unfolding stories in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ as it is for the Atlantic City of 1978 in this film and really, if there were a working film industry in Australia, then the casinos in Australia would make fantastic story fodder about corruption.

I mean let’s face it. What did it take Jamie Packer to convince Barry O’Farrell to give him a casino licence in Barangaroo? What the hell was that? And why so little pubic scrutiny? Inquiring minds would like to know. No?

True Story Loosely Based On Fact – Part 303

As the world grows smaller, we’re left with fewer unknowns about our own planet and our own history. With any luck they’ll make movies about Africa or the Eurasian steppes or something but in most part we know our world a lot more than we used to. Perhaps this sense of limit is driving the crop of films towards ever refined tellings and retellings of stories which happened. The alternative is to go off world and tell science fiction stories or fantasy stories – but even something like ‘Game of Thrones’ ends up approximating the sense of history we have from the Hundred Years War.

The drive toward verisimilitude inevitably is leading us to these stories which ride on the back of true events but are tweaked enough to make it a better narrative and a more exciting story. As I mentioned before the film works hard for its 1970s look, which in turn works hard to establish the 1970s as a sense of time and place. Maybe the only way we can convince studio executives that a story is worth doing is if something vaguely like it happened, and the screenwriter can piggyback on those events to give added gravitas to the narrative. After all, you just can’t think some of this stuff up on your own.

Bra-less And Slightly Slack

That being said about verisimilitude… I just want to talk about those dresses.

For those who don’t know, that’s a joke Bill Bruford made about the album title ‘Starless and Bible Black’ when he was playing with King Crimson in the 1970s. I know it’s incredibly slack of me to bring it up, but it’s the perfect line to describe Amy Adams’ attire in this film. Scene after scene we see her in these outfits that can only be described as 70s-daring. try as I might I couldn’t really think of anybody real wearing anything like that in New York City in 1978. Maybe I was a sheltered kid; but it needs no explanation that April in NYC is still pretty cold.

Seriously, the only person I could think of dressing like that, on any regular basis was Farrah Fawcett in her ‘Charlie’s Angels’ heyday, and maybe Diana Ross. 1978 was all about guys bearing their hairy chests so people can see the gold chains, remember?

So this whole thing of Amy Adams’ character flashing so much breast in scene after scene is more the director’s fetish than any kind of 1970s sensibility. If anything, there were plenty of people getting about looking like Dianne Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’ than these extreme get ups they designed for Amy Adams. It’s just overkill. It’s a nice little sleazy fantasy I guess, but it’s pretty far from the way it really was.

Was 1978 Really That Cool?

You’d better believe it. Think about the great debut albums of 1978. I’s just an amazing list. ‘Van Halen’ by Van Halen; ‘Outlandos D’Amour’ by the Police; ‘Dire Straits’ by Dire Straits; ‘For You’ by Prince; ‘Nina Hagen Band’ by Nina Hagen Band; ‘Are We Not Men? We Are Devo’ by Devo; ‘Generation X’ by Generation X; plus debut albums by the likes of Toto, Quiet Riot, Squeeze and The Cars. So yes, it was cool. Did any of this music end up in this film? No.

America under Jimmy Carter had a strange admixture of bleak cynicism and a naive kind of hippie hope. This would all get dashed when Ronald Reagan won in 1980 and it’s all been trickle down economics ever since. But the way New York City was then was the cipher stone for things to come. The Greed-is-Good thing was nascent but there amidst the glam and sleaze. There was a lingering egalitarianism that meant you could be living in the same apartment block as a New York Yankee as well as a Mafia Capo. It was a strange, strange time before big time money stratified society. Maybe the 1970s was the last decade that New York belonged to New Yorkers. Since then it’s become something else entirely. The strange charm of this movie is that it fits right in with the confused, dying embers of a certain kind of Americana that is no longer there.


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