Year of Release: 2013 Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C. K., and Robert De Niro.
Goodfellas meets Silver Linings Playbook with influences from Raging Bull. That is the most apt description I can think of to describe David O. Russell’s new ’70’s crime drama. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a smalltime con-artist who along with his mistress and business partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) steals $5,000 in the form of a business fee from any desperate individual looking for a loan, because sooner or later everyone hits bottom, and Irving and Sydney are waiting there to trap and exploit them.
After Sydney accidentally takes a check from undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), DiMaso agrees to drop the charges against them if they help him scam and expose four big criminals, starting with New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
The biggest irony in the film is that Polito, as played by Renner, is by far the least corrupt character of the entire ensemble. He is a family man, who desperately wants to help the people of New Jersey, and occasionally might work with some mafia members to raise funds to create jobs. To highlight that irony, the most corrupt character is Cooper’s overly zealous, power hungry FBI agent, who will stoop to any illicit means to nail the corrupt politicians he is after. Those means include fraud, deception, blackmail, and physical violence, all the while trying to cheat on his fiancé and to force himself sexually onto Sydney.
There are many other instances of equally dark humor, such as Jennifer Lawrence’s phenomenal performance as Irving’s selfish, unstable, and not particularly bright wife Rosalyn who threatens to expose the entire operation and endangers the lives of Irving, herself, and her son. But when confronted about her reckless behavior, she always manages to come up with an explanation that paints herself as the hero who averted some disaster. The opening scene with Bale, as he meticulously glues his “elaborate comb over” to his bald head, is both funny and symbolic of the extreme lengths to which these characters will go to present themselves as glamorous and to hustle their victims.
Bale’s makeup, weight gain, and performance are all clearly reminiscent of De Niro in Raging Bull, and his performance is equally incredible. The rest of the cast is excellent, even Cooper in the role of the incredibly obnoxious FBI agent DiMaso. Lawrence completely steals her few scenes as Rosalyn, especially her confrontation with Adams. Adams portrays the several personas of Sydney very well, and the viewer is never completely sure whom she is hustling and double crossing.
I love how the second half of the film continuously escalates the danger and the elaborate scheming as the characters’ greed and ambitions spiral out of control, much like Goodfellas. However, Russell maintains a lighthearted satirical tone rather than Scorsese’s bleak depiction of criminal proceedings. Both approaches work in their respective films, but Russell’s optimism makes his characters more endearing, even if Scorsese’s pessimistic portrayal might be more accurate.
My only small complaint about Russell’s optimism is that he opts for a semi-predictable, happy ending, which thoroughly humiliates the villain while the protagonists achieve everything they wanted. How that ending is achieved is a very clever surprise, but it is still obvious that that ending is somehow coming. The ending is an almost forgivable flaw, because as the amusing opening title card tells the audience, “Some of this stuff actually happened,” and occasionally life does play out as depicted here.
The strongest asset of Russell’s optimism is that it clearly shows in his love for the characters and actors. He lets his entire cast act and interact with one another with a script that highlights all of their talents. And it is a pleasure to watch a cast this talented giving their best performances.
The last thing worth noting is that the frequent use of ’70’s pop songs makes for a delightful soundtrack, especially “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Live and Let Die,” both of which are used perfectly to emphasize the mood of their scenes.
If only David O. Russell could make films with completely satisfying endings rather than generic crowd pleasing endings that wrap things up too neatly, then this would be a masterpiece. (as would Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter)
Content Advisory: A non-graphic sexual encounter, brief nudity during an exotic dance sequence, some groping, frequent revealing necklines, a same-sex kiss, much profane and obscene language, and some violence. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A-