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The Cosmetic World: David O’Russell’s ‘American Hustle’

Gautam Valluri

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in American Hustle (2014)

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in American Hustle (2014)

The grandest con pulled by director David O’Russell is that he makes us think American Hustle is a great film.

It may as well be his greatest film but not by any means a masterpiece.

The plot is an ordinary tale that is dressed up to look like a fantastic series of ‘real’ events, much like the film’s opening scene where Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld takes his time, elaborately combing over his balding hairline. That’s what the film essentially is, an elaborate comb over.

O’Russell builds the film around its five central actors, all in top form and clearly gunning for big awards. One can go as far as calling it O’Russell’s very own Pulp Fiction (1994) in terms of its ensemble cast. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner all work together as a team and make the film sensational.

If there’s any reason one must watch this film, it is to watch these great actors bounce brilliant performances off each other. O’Russell takes the charismatic sheen off of Bale and Cooper, makes them look like desperate, ordinary folk while he makes Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence look sexy and shimmering. These two actresses are nothing more than the magician’s lovely assistants that distract the audience while the magician pulls the rug out from under their feetbounce house canada.

At the core of the story, in true O’Russell fashion, all the characters are motivated by ‘necessity’ and somewhere along the way that necessity changes. This is a direct throwback to the director’s previous film Three Kings (1999) where a group of mercenaries go after Kuwaiti gold but end up saving refugees instead. Naturally, in that film none of the protagonists get the riches. It’s almost as if O’Russell is telling us that the good guys never get the gold and it holds true fourteen years later in American Hustle. Whoever takes a bribe in the film, ends up in jail at the end of it.

Looking back at the director’s two films immediately preceding this one, The Fighter (2011) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), it is clear that his characters keep making self-destructive choices until the third act where they decide to redeem themselves by “making things right” for everybody. Bale’s Dickie Eklund does the right thing in The Fighter by getting over his drug addiction and helping his brother win the world title and Cooper and Lawrence’s characters “make things right” by helping each other overcome their clinical depression in Silver Linings by falling in love with each othercheap bungee run rental.

This compulsive need for O’Russell to make things right is what keeps him from joining the leagues of the Tarantinos or the Scorseses who don’t seem to be bothered by it. For instance, one cannot imagine O’Russell making a film like The Age of Innocence (1993) or Two Lovers (2008), where the protagonist is broken so far beyond repair that there is simply no way to ‘make things right’.

But Rosenfeld makes things right in the end. He ensures the good guys are saved, the bad guys go to jail and the bad guy with the good intentions, Mayor Carmine Polito gets a reduced jail sentence. Of course, when you have to do all this in a matter of few minutes of running time, you resort to a twist ending. Where better directors have employed twist endings in numerous interesting ways, O’Russell resorts to banal exposition. Rosenfeld and DiMasso literally sit down in a room with a couple of supporting characters and “explain” the twist ending to each other (and in essence, to their audience).

American Hustle is David O’Russell’s greatest con. He has everything in the film to win it many awards and enough star power to make it a box-office hit. Perhaps the audience wants to be fooled. Perhaps they just want to be lost in the superficial convenience of having a story set in the 1970s, where all the actors mess up their hairstyles and wear ill-fitting clothes and have important plot points unfold over talking to each other on retro landline phones. Does anyone remember Frost/Nixon (2008)?


The Quintessence of Life: Ben Stiller’s ‘Walter Mitty’

Ben Stiller as Ben Stiller in 'The Secret Life of Ben Stiller'

Ben Stiller as Ben Stiller in ‘The Secret Life of Ben Stiller’

This is a film in which Stiller is unable to shake off the grand American film tradition of preaching some kind of higher lesson to its presumed naive audience.

In this case, it is “get away from your mechanical, worthless, stressed-out jobs and go explore the grand wide world, have experiences that you can note down in a small notebook and maybe grow a scruffy beard while you’re at it”.

The irony here is even when Walter Mitty does make that leap of faith and goes away to Greenland, he is still thinking of his woman co-worker crush Cheryl (played in a nice, understated way by Kristen Wiig). He is cycling through one of the most breathtaking sceneries (captured so by Stuart Dryburgh) and all he can look at is how a flock of birds forms the shape of Cheryl’s face.zorb ball for sale canada

But then, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is second only to Reality Bites (1994) in all the films that Ben Stiller is responsible for.

Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is the best thing about this film. Images of people going to their jobs in lifeless urban landscapes are reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s masterpiece PlayTime (1967) but unfortunately, Stiller’s Walter Mitty is no Monsieur Hulot.

There have been flashes of occasional genius from Stiller the actor in films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2000) and Greenberg (2010), and Stiller the director in films like The Cable Guy (1996), Tropic Thunder (2008) and in Reality Bites too, but one can’t help but feel that he hasn’t really outgrown his early-nineties’ run at The Ben Stiller Show where he frequently enacted extended comedy sketches that parodied erstwhile popular culture. This is a noble purpose, but rid of any real critical agency, it is merely imitation and not much else. Indeed, there is a leftover from the TV show: a fantasy sequence in the film where Stiller’s Walter Mitty parodies Brad Pitt’s character from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) that is both distracting and unnecessary (not to mention expensive, with all the make-up and visual effects that went into it).

Perhaps the most interesting ten minutes of the film occur when Sean Penn’s character finally makes an appearance as old school renegade photographer Sean O’Connell. Up until this point he looms over the film as a mythical being who Walter Mitty is chasing all around the globe (throughout which, in Hollywood’s version of optimistic universalism, everyone is a convenient speaker of English). Connell’s little speech about ‘being in the moment’ would’ve been super-corny if it hadn’t been for Sean Penn’s competency as an actor.

Another interesting plot point that Walter Mitty has it going for it throughout its runtime is the Macguffin that is the ‘negative 25′: the photo-frame that is to be the cover of the final issue of Life magazine or the ‘quintessence of life’ as Sean Penn’s character puts it.

This, the true meaning of the film’s universe, is discovered at the end and Stiller appears for a moment to not reveal the grand secret in a soaring and sentimental reverse-shot. But this is where Stiller’s Hollywood instincts take over and he once again resorts to beating his own drum. The photo-frame is revealed in one of the final last shots in the film and turns out to be the cover of Life magazine’s (the title of the magazine itself is not a co-incidence but a deliberate poetic gesture, the sort Hollywood gushes over, ‘quintessence of Life’) final issue.

What does it contain? A picture of Walter Mitty, of course. Or of Ben Stiller himself.

The Cool Cannibals

Gautam Valluri

Malcolm McDowell and Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral (2012)

Brandon Cronenberg’s directional debut Antiviral (2012) is quietly impressive.

While comparisions to his father David are unavoidable, the younger Cronenberg stands out on his own. In fact, the film seems to resonate more closely to the style of Stanley Kubrick than David Cronenberg.

The film is set in what seems to be the near future in an alternate universe where celebrity worship has escalated to unhealthy levels.

The subjects of this obsessive adoration now sell their cells to their devotees to devour as food (‘celebrity stakes’). Cronenberg Jr doesn’t shy away from the rather literal depiction of this form of celebrity cannibalism and instead presents it in a rather matter-of-fact manner.

The more important function in the film however, is the role of ‘clinics’ that sample celebrity illnesses and administer them to the fans so that they may share in the suffering of their idols and thus, coming closer to them. These diseases are administered through the injection of the virus taken directly from the celebrity’s body. There is a tone of deep eroticism that is suggested as the shots of needles penetrating the skin are shown in extreme close-ups (the director insists that all were real). The idea of having someone else’s bodily fluid penetrated into your body is like the cannibalistic metaphor mentioned above, literal and thought-provoking.

At its heart, Antiviral is a heavily conceptual film and as conceptual films go, there are certain Règle du jeu that must be explained to the audience. Now think of Inception (2010) and its brilliant sci-fi premise that required so much exposition from the script throughout its two and a half hour running time. There never really is enough time to explain all the ‘rules’ and only so many visual ways a director can get the message across. These films inevitably turn into a classroom session- like Cobb teaching the new recruit Ariadne how dreamland architecture works or Morpheus teaching Neo what the Matrix is and how it came to be.

Fortunately, Cronenberg is resourceful enough to favour visual ambiguity over direct exposition. He doesn’t show the need to explain everything to his audience verbally and thus gives them enough breathing room to fill in the blanks with their own perspective on the happenings on screen. Details are revealed in check-out lines, through ‘Lucas Clinic’ TV advertisements, in horrific hallucinations and in news reports. This is the sort of method one can imagine Duncan Jones employing in his ‘conceptual’ science fiction films.

Even with the above mentioned risks, Cronenberg is able to pull off an impressive film mainly because he gets it right at the two significant levels of image and sound. His film is populated by fantastic production design that is complemented brilliantly by Karim Hussain’s cinematography. Every frame of the film feels ‘sanitized’ and one can almost smell the clinical disinfectant. Stark whites and unrealistic blacks lend a tone of inhuman monochromaticism to film and the ridiculously pale complexion of Caleb Landry Jones’ skin doesn’t help too much. The horrid disease-induced hallucinations carry a tone of poetic calm and the parts with blood smearing feel surprisingly unshocking and almost painterly.

The sound completes the atmosphere of the film. It takes what the visuals have carefully evoked and ‘fixes’ them firmly into a very precise uncomfortable corner of your mind. The largely electronica-dominated score hardly ever tries to be ‘musical’ let alone cinematic and instead borders on noise. It creates an unsettling feel on the lines of A Clockwork Orange (1971).

The performances of Caleb Landry Jones and Sarah Gadon are very understated and blend in seamlessly into the overall atmosphere of the film. The unfamiliarity of these actors is what adds to the discomfort of the film and only with the arrival of Malcolm McDowell’s character one has some sense of familiarity but that doesn’t distract the audience from the film.

Overall, Brandon Cronenberg is someone to watch in the coming years. His debut is marked with remarkable craftsmanship and a deep understanding of his craft. While the initial reactions dismissed him as a product of his father’s style, he transcended that phase quickly and seems to have found decent praise and a small audience of his own. He attributes the conception of this idea to two incidents- the first, of his bout with a flu which he had received from someone else and the thought of his illness originating from someone else’s body and the second, an episode of Jimmy Kimmel where guest Sarah Michelle Gellar said she had a cold and said if she sneezed she would infect everyone in the audience and to which she received a loud cheer and applause.

Antiviral is interesting and put together well enough that it doesn’t seem to fall apart very easily. If critical acclaim is not its destiny then perhaps a cult following is.