Who doesn’t love Matt Damon and Christian Bale?
(Okay, probably this guy doesn’t love Bale so much, and Minnie Driver still might be holding a grudge against Damon… but just go with me on this.)
And who doesn’t love when big stars like Matt Damon and Christian Bale ugly themselves up with bad hairpieces and weight gains and cheesy facial hair for a scruffy little indie role?
And who doesn’t love offbeat, period, indie comedies based on true stories in which the aforementioned uglied-up big stars like Matt Damon and Christian Bale play real-life dudes who started working undercover with the feds to catch criminals, only to turn out to be unreliable and devious and driven by their own agendas?
And who doesn’t love when original mavericks of low-budget filmmaking like Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell return to their indie roots and make what I just said above?
And who doesn’t love watching two such examples of all that stuff getting thrown into the Smackdown ring to duke it out?
Well, regardless of your answer, we’re doing this thing.
Writer/director/former madman David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, begins by assuring us that “Some of this story actually happened.” How much of it actually happened, we leave for you to research, but in the fictionalized movie version (script by Russell and Eric Singer), set amid the unmistakably garish fashions and designs of the hustle-era mid-’70s, our “hero” and not entirely reliable narrator is one Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), a pudgy and lovingly combed-over dry-cleaner whose sideline business as a con man takes off when he meets and immediately teams up with his apparent soulmate, Sydney Prosser (a deliciously kittenish Amy Adams), who specializes in posing as an alluring British aristocrat.
When they are entrapped by a cagey, over-eager and eccentric FBI agent Richie DiMaso (a hyper-permed Bradley Cooper, at his most motor-mouthy), they are forced to team up with him on an increasingly ambitious series of Abscam-inspired stings. Their potential victims include a a Very Special Guest Star mobster and a corrupt but well-meaning politician (Jeremy Renner), with whom Irving forms a genuine kinship.
Meanwhile, Irving and Sydney may or may not be playing DiMaso for a sucker, and complicating all this even further is the “love polygon” gradually formed around the couple by DiMaso’s borderline obsession with Sydney, and Irving’s temperamental and accident-prone wife Rosalyn (a hilarious, scene-stealing Jennifer Lawrence), whose possessive jealousy leads to her acting out in ways that risk the entire operation.
It’s the early ’90s, and when we meet Mark Whitacre (Damon), soon to be The Informant! (2009), he is a mild-mannered, bespectacled and mustached biochemist and family man working for an agricultural conglomerate who reveals to his superiors a blackmailing scheme tied to the presence of a mole in the company. They respond, to Whitacre’s chagrin, by bringing the feds in on the case, the most prominent being good-natured agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), and before long, Whitacre is bumbling his way through a variety of international sting operations, all the while his own devious schemes slowly coming to light.
Whitacre eventually reveals himself to be an embezzler, con artist and liar of the highest order, as well as quite mentally unbalanced, and before long, the informant(!) has become the feds’ target.
The script by repeat Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects) is faithfully adapted from the astonishing and exhausting non-fiction chronicle of the case by Kurt Eichenwald, and given a whimsical, off-kilter vibe by Soderbergh, complete with an infectiously cheerful Muzak-ish score by Marvin Hamlisch. The cast is peppered with oddly straight-faced but welcome cameos from the normally comedic likes of Joel McHale, Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt, Rick Overton and both Smothers Brothers.
No one makes movies quite like Soderbergh and Russell, including each other, so naturally, as thematically similar as their stories are, they couldn’t be more different in execution. Informant! is a light, fizzy cocktail, amiably breezing along, committed to telling its wildly improbable and byzantine story (impressively boiled down to its essence) as lucidly and sincerely as possible, but refusing to take itself too seriously. Helping it enormously is Damon’s jittery, fearlessly dweeby lead performance, and the near-brilliant decision to filter the story through Whitacre’s singular and highly selective point of view. Burns cleverly gives us access to Whitacre’s thoughts, a hilariously bizarre series of non-sequiturs (“I don’t like wool on skin. Not even that merino wool they have at Marshall Field in Chicago. Ginger likes it because it’s form-fitting, but she likes avocados. And who wants that texture in their mouth?”) that play like throwaway gags at first but slowly unearth a genuinely disturbed mind at work, perfectly complemented by –- I really can’t stress this enough –- arguably the catchiest score ever written.
Hustle is more like one of those really complicated girly drinks that takes ten minutes to make and combines several different alcohols, a handful of juices, vegetables and spices and a Snickers bar garnish. It’s a big, crazy, chaotic mess of a movie that mixes some all-too-obvious influences (Bale’s rapid-fire narration and the near-continuous score of classic rock tunes practically insists on bringing Goodfellas to mind) with Russell’s unique rhythms and sensibilities to yield something in which nothing is entirely unfamiliar, yet goes down like an utterly fresh concoction.
The director (after the excruciating failure of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees) seems to have found his niche in taking these rather standard genre pictures and putting fresh twists on them, to mixed results: The Fighter (2010) was the most entertaining entry the boxing genre had seen in decades, but his previous film, last year’s wildly overpraised Silver Linings Playbook, was a clumsy, jumbled stab at the “two crazy people find each other” rom-com. The two films also won three acting Oscars between them, including those for Hustle’s Bale and Lawrence), so whatever his flaws, Russell knows how to match talent with roles. This time out, expect Lawrence to get Oscar attention for her wonderfully loopy work as a seductive, overly possessive whack-job (her living room performance of “Live and Let Die” is destined for Risky Business-level classic status), but the entire cast is firing on all cylinders, including the nearly unrecognizable Bale, the never-sexier Adams, the engagingly manic Cooper, and Louis C.K. as Cooper’s endlessly patient superior, getting laughs with practically every weary line.
In both cases, though, the most distinctive element is the feel of these films, the odd and singular tones that their makers infused them with. Informant! is a masterful study in low-key, goofball charm, and Hustle is a crazy, chaotic symphony of unusual noise; it manages to somehow feel organic yet meticulous, as if Russell has tapped into the formula for getting his actors to improvise in the precise way he wants them to. It’s also worth a look just for the eye candy of its garish ’70s costumes and hairstyles; Bale’s absurd comb-over, Renner’s towering pompadour, and Adams’ cleavage-emphasizing gowns are practically characters themselves. The period details of Informant! are just as accurate, but due to its rather undistinguished era, not nearly as memorable. But man, that music….
While I found The Informant! a delight, it’s admittedly not for anywhere near all tastes. Its droll, deadpan wit is undoubtedly a tad too dry for some, and Whitacre is such a bizarre, puzzling and ultimately rather pitiful presence that following him through this labyrinthine story is no easy task. Not that Irving Rosenfeld is without his flaws, but through all the deception and double-crossing and amorality, there’s still something lovable, charming and even (so say women I’ve talked to) oddly sexy about the guy, paunch and hideous hair notwithstanding.
Ultimately, neither movie really adds up to much, but they’re both works of genuine cinematic artists with singular voices and delightfully offbeat sensibilities. American Hustle tipped the scales for me with the sheer volume of pleasures at its disposal, and it’s surely destined to get the greater amount of accolades and box office over the unassuming Informant!, but dammit, it’s such a close call. I say give them both a look. And then buy both soundtracks.