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Knight at the Movies: American Hustle; Inside Llewyn Davis
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2013-12-18

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The raves for American Hustle and Inside Llewyn Davis and the number of Top Ten lists these two movies are on must be making their respective producers very happy. Both are shoo-ins for major awards consideration. And though both have their compensations I didn't fall for them, like the bulk of my fellow film critics.

American Hustle, from Silver Linings Playbook writer-director David O. Russell, is easily the better of the two—an entertaining but bloated, starry, Grand Hotel-sized con artist caper that looks, sounds and feels like Scorsese without a smidgen of the electricity he effortlessly brings to his pictures. The movie—which is partially based on the Abscam scandal in which high-level politicians were caught taking bribes—focuses on Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a plus-sized, low-life con man with an elaborate combover. ( Bale packed on 40 pounds for the role. ) Irving falls hard for Sydney Prosser ( Amy Adams ), a fellow Jerseyite determined to leave behind her less-than-sophisticated background and have the good life she's glimpsed working as a secretary at Cosmopolitan magazine.

So Sydney, wearing designer castoffs left behind at one of Irving's dry-cleaning businesses, adopts a phony English accent and becomes Lady Edith Greensly, reeling in the suckers for Irving's lucrative schemes. Everything goes beautifully for a while until the duo shakes down an undercover FBI agent ( Bradley Cooper ) who shares the pair's yearning to leave his past behind. The agent decides to use the pair to go after even bigger fish—namely mob bosses, politicians, and even a senator or two—all involved in taking bribes to push through the building of casinos along the boardwalk in Atlantic City. As the stakes are raised and the cat-and-mouse games increase, several wild cards come into play, the wildest of which is Irving's out-of-control wife, Rosalyn ( Jennifer Lawrence ), whose outbursts and disorderly public conduct might just ruin the entire scam just as its building to its big payoff.

Set in 1978 and meticulously re-created, the movie, which Eric Warren Singer and Russell co-wrote, has all the hallmarks of the disco era with the big hair; the outlandish fashions; the whale-sized cars; the shag-carpeted, plastic interiors; and a plethora of period songs on the soundtrack. When done on this grand scale, the '70s kitsch alone still has the power to entertain, and the movie bumps along from scene to scene while you wait for it to get beneath this glossy, tacky surface—which it never does for long.

When Amy Adams tells Christian Bale, "I'm going to be very, very convincing," therein lies the problem with the entire enterprise because it's, well, not very convincing. One never gets past the faÞade; the elaborate get-ups each character sports—with Bale there's the prominent gut and the hair; Adams is all about her prominent breasts; and Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and Cooper also sport elaborate hairdos—and these physical tics are repeatedly used as visual punch lines to the point where it's nigh on impossible to get past them and become immersed in the film.

But that's not to say that American Hustle doesn't have its share of fun sequences. ( Every scene with Lawrence is a winner, as are those with Louis C.K. as Cooper's by-the-book boss, and Renner brings a bit of desperately needed heart to the proceedings, as does Colleen Camp as his wife. ) Though this imitation of Scorsese never duplicates the master ( which is emphasized when DeNiro himself makes a welcome cameo ) and announces itself at every turn ( "Look At Me!" it screams over and over again ), American Hustle offers enough junky pleasures to con most audiences into thinking they're having a better time than they probably are.

As for Inside Llewyn Davis, well, it is certainly identifiable as the Coen brothers movie that it is—a gorgeously detailed period piece peopled with the usual assortment of oddballs. However, the central character is such a sour, mean-spirited narcissist—a black hole sucking the energy out of every scene—that to sit through it is somewhat akin to masochism. Sometimes I don't mind having my nose rubbed in the dyspeptic world view that is a given with the Coen brothers. Hell, with A Serious Man, I luxuriated in it. ( That one, I think, is a masterpiece. ) But not this time; not this time.

The movie is set in 1961, when the hip folk music scene in New York's Greenwich Village was about to become the next big wave in American music ( thanks to Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; and others ). Sitting on the edge of this volcano, unaware, is the aforesaid misanthrope, one Llewyn Davis ( played by newcomer Oscar Isaac ) a struggling folk singer who quite obviously when we meet him has been treading water professionally and personally for quite some time.

Llewyn is a big-time user and as he hardscrabbles his way around Manhattan—scrounging up the odd gig and recording date while trying to make yet another female and scrambling for a place to crash each night—we see that he has left a wake of emotional destruction ( not to mention debts ) in his quest for greater glory. "Everything you touch turns to shit" yells Carey Mulligan, as another folk singer who he may have impregnated—and she's right. And for 105 minutes we watch as this arrogant jerk lives up to that assessment. Llewyn is talented but lacks the indelible spark that makes a star ( or a businessman enough money to invest in him, a fact that is brutally made clear at one point ) so what are we left with?

The movie is perfectly realized period piece, so gorgeously shot it looks almost painterly but it's so god-awful grim and, as noted, so tightly focused on such a disagreeable character that I greeted its fadeout as the equivalent of the end of a migraine headache—and the feeling that, somewhere, the Coen brothers are having a nice big laugh at my expense.

Film notes:

—Screening reminder: Out director Rodney Evans' sexy romantic drama The Happy Sad is having a one-night-only screening on Wed., Dec. 18, with Chicago Fire star Charlie Barnett in attendance at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. https://www.facebook.com/groups/thehappysadfilm/

—Almodovar lite: Out writer-director Pedro Almodovar described his latest, the frothy sex comedy I'm So Excited, as his gayest film in years and he's right. It plays a return theatrical engagement beginning Sunday, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. www.siskelfilmcenter.org/im-so-excited .


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