Best moments of the Oscar front-runners: Love gone wrong in "American Hustle"

A second look at this year's tight Oscar race: First up, "American Hustle" as a tale of manly love betrayed

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 26, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

Christian Bale in "American Hustle"
Christian Bale in "American Hustle"

It’s not as if the bizarre cultural ritual of the Oscars — an election with presumed historical impact, but fewer actual voters than the mayoral race in Davenport, Iowa — doesn’t occasionally involve close races or surprising results. Nearly everyone was taken off guard in 2006, when Paul Haggis’ “Crash” won best picture over “Brokeback Mountain,” although perhaps we shouldn’t have been. A movie about white guilt set largely on the L.A. freeways, whatever you make of it, spoke directly to issues academy members encountered every day. “Brokeback Mountain” arrived a smidgen too early, in cultural-historical terms.

But in recent years, everyone in and around the business (and even most casual fans) has been about 95 percent sure what was going to win, heading into Oscar weekend. In fact, a last-minute consensus has developed even in this tumultuous and unpredictable year, and we’ll get to that. But it remains true that with all the other awards, all the BAFTAs and Golden Globes and guild awards, all the prognostication and “For Your Consideration” advertising, and with the voting itself closed as of Tuesday evening, we find ourselves in a nearly unprecedented situation: A virtual three-way tie in the best-picture race, in which all three movies are highly plausible winners.

I take it as axiomatic, by the way, that the best-picture vote has very little to do with anything as abstract as cinematic or artistic quality, and a whole lot to do with film industry politics and public relations. Remember that this is essentially a trade show, whose purpose is to make the entire Hollywood industry look good. As Grantland’s Oscar columnist Mark Harris recently noted, the list of Oscar nominees can tell us a lot about the state of film culture in a given year, but the winner often tells us little or nothing. Or as veteran Hollywood blogger Anne Thompson puts it, academy members think first and foremost “about how they want to be represented to the world. It’s not just what movie they like best. It’s what movie they want to like best.”

Given those parameters, I gave all three of the leading Oscar contenders another look this week, seeking to decode them a bit more in terms of craft, structure and political messaging. In particular, I was looking for revelatory moments, for those scenes in any good movie (and all three of these were well worth watching a second time) when a statement of theme is made, and something that is hidden — whether from the characters, from the audience or even from the filmmaker — is made clear. Let’s start with the film that I assumed all along (really until this week) would be the eventual winner. It won best picture from both the New York and Chicago critics, along with the Golden Globe for best comedy or musical, and garnered Oscar nominations in a whole bunch of categories. Jennifer Lawrence remains a leading candidate in the supporting actress category, but the movie itself seems to have fallen a few millimeters behind the other two contenders in the best-picture race. Oh, and yeah: spoiler alert. These movies have been out for months, people. Not my problem anymore.

“American Hustle” is fundamentally a love story, or rather three main interconnected love stories, with a couple of tangential ones clinging to the outside. Two of those three love stories end in betrayal, and the one that doesn’t — between comb-over con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser, aka Lady Edith Greensly (Amy Adams) — has a tacked-on happy ending, mostly managed in voice-over, that doesn’t ring true. I’m not sure I’m offering that as a criticism, exactly, although that ending has a more-than-faint odor of condescension, of director and co-writer David O. Russell giving the audience what he presumes it wants. But it does help explain the ways “American Hustle” is in conflict with itself, the ways it tries to conceal a fatalistic or chaotic satire in the guise of a 1970s disco dress-up comedy.

Except, no, let’s back up: The 1970s disco dress-up is part of the point too. It’s impossible not to be seduced by the sensual allure of “American Hustle,” which begins with the present-day Columbia Pictures logo reverting back to a late-‘70s version, while Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues” (off the great live album “Ellington at Newport 1956”) plays on the soundtrack. It’s nostalgia inside nostalgia, prefiguring the moment early in the film when Irving and Sydney will meet at a pool party (on Long Island, in January) and connect over that song, identifying each other as the only people there who would conceivably care about a 20-year-old jazz record. Whatever game Russell is playing in this movie — whatever Irv Rosenfeld-like con he’s running on us, if you want to put it that way — he goes deep right away.

I’m not saying that the movie’s sensual allure is superficial, or irrelevant to some deeper understanding. Surely Amy Adams’ outrageous plunging necklines, the form-fitting outfits and overdone hair of Jennifer Lawrence, the Scorsese-style soundtrack that stretches from Tom Jones and Sinatra to ELO and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and the voluptuous camera movement and rich colors of cinematographer Linus Sandgren (captured on glorious 35mm film!) are among the main reasons people want to see “American Hustle.” But to some degree Russell is using all that eye-and-ear candy, along with the semi-topical frame of the Abscam scandal, which threatened to expose the entire New Jersey and Pennsylvania congressional delegations as a bunch of crooks, to distract us from an extremely simple story structure.

After a dizzying introductory scene in which Irving, Sydney and coked-up FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) try to bribe Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) in the Plaza Hotel, the next 20 minutes of “American Hustle” introduces Irving and Sydney and recounts the extended launch of their love affair. It’s as if Russell shows us, straight out, what this movie’s really about and where it’s headed, and then spends the next 100 minutes or so trying to bewilder us by overstimulating our pleasure centers. Each of these characters will have another serious love affair (and maybe a couple of flings) along the way to their inevitable reunion.

I suppose it’s true that within the story, Irv and Sydney genuinely aren’t sure what’s going to happen. Irving keeps getting lured back home, understandably enough, by his seductive, unbalanced and supremely passive-aggressive wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). In order to ensnare Richie, and convince him that he’s in control of the situation, Sydney-as-Lady Edith has to go all the way to falling in love with him herself. But Irv and Sydney always have the long con in view, and so does Russell. Any time we in the audience try to convince ourselves that some other outcome is possible we’re overlooking the obvious: Russell is not in fact making some Euro-influenced ‘70s film in which everyone drifts away into anomie at the end (as much as it may look like one). He’s making a 21st-century Hollywood comedy, and its possible conclusions all resolve to a single point.

But if Sydney’s intermediate love affair is obviously with Richie, Irving’s romance is not with Rosalyn (he’s already married to her, after all) but with Carmine, the corrupt but goodhearted (or maybe honest-because-corrupt) kingmaker of South Jersey. (Carmine is closely modeled on real-life Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who went down in the Abscam scandal.) I’m not suggesting there’s some homoerotic subtext to this movie, only that whatever is missing in Irving Rosenfeld’s life (the love of a father or a brother or a trusted comrade), this charismatic, magnanimous, money-laundering family man provides it, and we feel the sudden unexpected passion of their relationship just the way we feel a love affair. In a twinned scene, smack in the center of “American Hustle,” we go from Richie and Sydney in the disco heat of Studio 54, where they stop just short of having sex in a toilet stall, to Irv and Carmine drunkenly singing along to “Delilah” at an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. They don’t have sex either, but the emotional content is about the same.

When Richie finally understands that Sydney has scammed him, it’s a key plot point that involves the revelation of the long con Sydney and Irv have run on everyone else in the movie. But despite Cooper’s amped-up, coke-fueled and often very funny performance (or maybe because of it), I never found Richie a compelling or sympathetic character, and I didn’t care what happened to him. Carmine’s case is quite different, and the scene when he learns the truth about his new best friend features the sharpest moment of moral insight in the shifting, delirious landscape of “American Hustle.” As I see it, it’s the movie’s true ending, and a much starker one than the perfunctory happily-ever-after that follows a few minutes later.

It begins almost exactly at the two-hour mark, about 9 or 10 minutes before the end of the film, and is bracketed by shots of Irv and Sydney together in his sky-blue Eldorado, momentarily protected from the outside world. They pull up in front of Carmine’s house (a lovely two-story Victorian, not ostentatious at all) and Irv mutters, “Yeah, well, I gotta do this.” Do what, we wonder? No more than five seconds later, Irv is sitting in Carmine’s living room telling him, “I want to face you like a man because I want to be real now,” a virtual echo of things Richie and Sydney have said to each other. What follows, in about three minutes of tightly edited shots, is the revelation that the entire basis of their friendship is fraudulent: There is no Emirati sheik prepared to invest in Carmine’s Atlantic City casino schemes; by luring Carmine back into the Plaza Hotel after the latter’s initial refusal to take a bribe, Irving was only trying to save his own ass, and has surely consigned his friend to federal prison. (The real-life Errichetti served two and a half years.)

Carmine beats and berates Irving (who keeps protesting that he can “make this right,” which obviously isn’t true), ordering him out of the house while Carmine’s wife, Dolly (Elisabeth Röhm, making the most of a few moments), goes from concern to fury to despair, and a parade of Polito children watches from the staircase. A few seconds before that, Carmine has ordered Irving to look him in the face, which the latter is not eager to do. “Tell me that I’m lying to you,” Carmine demands, “when I say that everything I do is for the good of the people of New Jersey.” Irving’s only response is to lament his own emotional loss: “I never had a friend like you.” As Carmine finally shoves Irving out the door, Dolly sinks to the floor and begins to wail: “Carmine, what’s happening? Oh my God!” Sandgren’s camera follows her voice across the street and finds Sydney, sitting alone in the Eldorado, aghast. Here is the true consequence of Irv and Sydney’s con game: A man who genuinely believed he was doing the right thing has been destroyed, and his family irreparably damaged.

Does “American Hustle” default on the moral and emotional pain of that moment with its sugarcoated ending, or simply conceal it in palatable form? I’m not entirely sure; the great strength and great weakness of this movie (and it’s a criticism one could apply to Russell’s other recent hits, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) is that it skates close to some dark and mordant observations about the nature of American life and then strives to reassure us that it’s all in fun and redemption is at hand. Those qualities make “American Hustle” the most obviously “movie-like” or Oscar-flavored of this year’s major nominees, the most tonally in line with recent big winners like “Argo” or “The Artist” or “The King’s Speech.” Of course it might still win, but if it doesn’t, as many entrail-readers now suspect, that will be because the cultural politics of the moment have pushed Hollywood out of its familiar comfort zone and into a new era.

Next up: Sandra Bullock weightless in her skivvies, the mysterious reappearance of George Clooney, and the movie that could break the unofficial Oscar fatwa against science fiction.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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