We’ve not really had much of the year, so it’s a bit of unwarranted hyperbole (or backhanded sarcasm) to start proclaiming this the best film so far this year, but I did enjoy it a fair bit. I might even go so far as to say that if I’d seen it last year, I’d have included it somewhere in my ‘best of’ list. It’s a story about storytellers, and it lets them get on with telling their respective stories with fairly little practical interest in the plot details (they’re there of course — it’s even loosely based on real events — but they’re hardly emphasised). It’s more of a series of character studies interconnected by music-focused setpieces — in fact, so foregrounded is the contemporary pop music that the film strongly brings to mind the cinema of Martin Scorsese (and his later imitators, like Paul Thomas Anderson), helped along by the cameo appearance of one of his key collaborators of the 1970s. As a pastiche of period style and set design it’s very accomplished, and as an entertainment it’s certainly enjoyable; I’m not convinced it’s very much deeper than that, but there are worse people in whose company to spend a couple of hours at the movies.
I say it’s without deeper meaning but that’s not strictly true, since in a sense it deals with that most evergreen of US cinematic themes, the pursuit of the ‘American dream’. Each of the characters is scrabbling desperately after a slice of something better, and while the intentions of most — both crooks and cops — are self-interested, there are also characters like the mayor, Carmine (Jeremy Renner), who are acting out of some sense of obligation to a greater social good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The key players here are Christian Bale’s shlubby Irving and his partner-in-crime Sydney (the talented Amy Adams), whose strictly small-time swindles are rather forcibly taken to a bigger and more dangerous stage by the intervention of FBI agent Richie (curly-haired Bradley Cooper). Irving is content in his shady little corner of the New Jersey underworld, and Sydney is trying to escape her south-western upbringing by affecting the title of Lady Edith and a generic English accent which is only good enough to convince the local marks of her apparently upstanding intentions. It’s Richie and his boss’s boss who are the ones motivated by their own professional gain to try to net Mafia and the government (first the local mayor and then Washington figures) in the scam operation.
But that’s all just a framework on which to hang these multiple tales, interwoven like a Tarantino or Anderson narrative with a propulsive 70s pop-hit-laden score, and overlaid with personal testimonies from the key figures, presenting almost Rashomon-like their own takes on what’s going on. It’s all cannily edited together, and as I’ve mentioned already, shot and made with a fastidious (almost overbearing) attentiveness to glossy contemporary detail, but this is primarily a performer’s film, and you can see why people continue to want to work with director David O. Russell. Even smaller characters get to tell their stories, and there’s an increasingly hilarious running gag involving Richie’s boss Stoddard (Louis C.K.) who’s trying to impart some advice to his younger charge.
Of the core cast, Jennifer Lawrence is one of the most talented young actors around and even with credits as excellent as The Hunger Games and her breakout in Winter’s Bone, and even with a relatively small role here, she still manages to stand out in every scene she’s in by sheer force of character. But then again, Russell and Eric Singer (who wrote the original screenplay) have put together a collection of larger-than-life characters — or maybe caricatures, as after all they are indeed quite a bit more showy than anyone in real life — and all the actors get a chance to twirl in front of the cameras. If Lawrence gets the histrionic part, then Amy Adams has a far more shaded character, which she just hits perfectly, while Christian Bale stands out primarily in the extent to which he’s underplaying Irving, an underplaying which oddly makes the character even more compelling than he has any right to be.
All of this adds up to a film that feels loose, like a shaggy-dog story that seems rather easily led away down winding digressive paths, but is in fact really quite tightly structured. It probably does seem unfocused to those who are looking at it as a rendering of the historical Abscam events from which it draws its inspiration, but as a film that’s ultimately about performance — there’s even a literal stage at one point — and about people’s capacity for telling (and believing) stories, this is as carefully put together as they come.
Director David O. Russell; Writers Eric Warren Singer and Russell; Cinematographer Linus Sandgren; Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 5 January 2014.