Movie Review – American Hustle; Anchorman 2

American Hustle, David O. Russell’s follow-up to his widely praised Silver Linings Playbook proves to be his latest oft-kilter version of the American success story. It is also a vibrant, volatile, and frequently very funny film that occasionally feels like a cast reunion, what with Russell alums Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, joined by Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. in what proves to be one of the best ensembles of the year.

The film is inspired by the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s but don’t look for a factual expose. Rather, it’s a look at various schemers and dreamers who allow themselves to get corrupted—and corrupt others–in their pursuit of the American Dream. Christian Bale, with the aid of the world’s worst comb-over, plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con artist with problems. He’s got a wife (Jennifer Lawrence) he can’t get rid of , lest he jeopardize his relationship with his son; a dry-cleaning business supplying a veneer of respectability—and a semi-lucrative sideline in fleecing would-be investors with an array of fake promises. Amy Adams is his loving accomplice Sydney, a stripper who has reinvented herself as the veddy British “Lady Edith” in order to help Irving seduce his marks. Their activities eventually attract the unwelcome attention of FBI agent Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper), who wants to be a big man at the Bureau and forces the trapped duo into helping him go after other con artists. Unfortunately for everyone involved (including the Bureau), Richie’s dreams go beyond mere high-level grifters—he wants to bring down as many politicians as he can, starting in Camden, New Jersey, with its idealistic mayor (Jeremy Renner) who has his own dream—that of revitalizing Atlantic City. It’s a dream that also needs financing in order to become a reality, which leaves the mayor vulnerable to the machinations of overly ambitious agent DeMaso and a somewhat reluctant Irving.

American Hustle pulsates with an energy and complexity that have lately been absent from American films. The pace rarely lets up, and the incisive script by Russell and Eric Warren Singer creates a series of well-crafted, changing relationships. Irving may be a con man, but in Mr. Bale’s masterful portrayal, he is also warmhearted, likable and even playfully innocent, as in his courtship scenes with the excellent Amy Adams, especially an early romp through his dry cleaners, with all the unclaimed attire at his disposal. Bale’s scenes with neglected, brassy, but not unintelligent wife (a bawdy, occasionally hilarious turn by Jennifer Lawrence) resonate with frustration and resentment. His need to tear himself and Adams away from Cooper’s somewhat unstable DiMaso is jeopardized by his growing affection for Renner’s very sympathetic Mayor, and a desire to make things right for all involved. However, as American Hustle makes painfully clear, making things right can come at a tremendous cost, with a great deal of collateral damage.

One shouldn’t think that American Hustle is a grim dissection of the American Dream; rather it’s a satiric, frequently very funny look at these deluded characters and how far they’re willing to go for what they want, with the little successes and surprising missteps along the way. Performances all the way down the line are topnotch; in addition to the aforementioned Bale, Adams, and Lawrence, Cooper is terrific as the type of over-zealous, self-important and totally insecure agent who gives any Bureau a bad name; in addition to his tense exchanges with Bale, Cooper’s scenes with Louis C.K. (as Cooper’s frazzled boss) are like little master classes in comic timing. Jeremy Renner’s idealistic mayor is his best screen work, a very sympathetic portrayal that provides much of the heart of the film. If all this hasn’t enticed you to see the movie, there is also a cameo by another Russell alum–as a high-level mobster and prospective investor (it’s not Dustin Hoffman).

The self-indulgent Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues resurrects Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy, an anchorman so boorish and moronic that he makes Ted Baxter from the Mary Tyler Moore show look like Walter Cronkite by comaprison. I enjoyed the first Anchorman, and for those of you who also enjoyed it, the sequel is not only more of the same—it’s more of the same, on a bigger, increasingly bloated level. Only this time, familiarity breeds more than a little contempt. Burgundy’s rants and pomposity were pretty darn funny the first time around, but the second time is no charm as this superfluous sequel largely lacks freshness, punch lines, and anything resembling interesting plot twists.

Yes, Anchorman 2 has a plot, having to do with a fired, demoralized Ron heading to NY (with his team) to join a 24-hour cable news network—and hopefully patch up his marriage to Veronica, who is now a lead anchor on a major network news show. This time, Ron’s new potential nemesis (Meghan Good) isn’t just a woman, she’s a powerful, attractive black woman (as Burgundy can’t help but notice—repeatedly and tiresomely) who is nevertheless able to see past Burgundy’s many flaws in an attempt to make him her man. This also leads to a protracted scene where he meets her family that begins amusingly, but nevertheless stays long past its welcome. That goes for the other set pieces, especially a reprise of the battle of the networks that includes Liam Neeson, Sasha Cohen and Jim Carrey, but unfortunately to little comedic effect. Of the returning players, Paul Rudd and Steve Carell are fairly amusing; Carell has some particularly funny moments observing himself doing the weather, and later courting a similarly spacey Kristen Wiig. Christina Applegate is still a game Veronica, while Greg Kinnear acquits himself nicely as her new beau. As for Will Ferrell, Ron Burgundy is still an inspired creation, but if he’s going to bring him back again, one can only hope it’s in the service of a funnier, more inspired screenplay–perhaps authored by someone other than himself and Adam McKay.