Uneven "Philomena" and "Anchorman" and an energetic "Hustle"
Everything is fake—from Christian Bale’s hideous comb-over/toupee combo to Amy Adams’ English accent—in David O. Russell’s messy, hilarious crime comedy “American Hustle.”
“Some of this actually happened,” reads the opening titles before the movie begins. Not only is it a breath of fresh air from the spate of movies that come out each Oscar season that claim to be based on a true story (see last year’s heavily modified version of the truth in “Argo”), but it also sets the loony tone of this freewheeling film.
As he proved in 1999’s “Three Kings,” Russell is a master at defying genre. He’s at it again, as he reportedly got a hold of Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay about the controversial 1978-1980 Abscam FBI sting and, fascinated by the questionable ethics of the operation, concocted a desperate love triangle and played fast and loose with the facts.
Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sidney Prosser (Adams) are two lost American dreamers who fall in love (despite the fact that Irving is already married) and are intent on changing their own lives. They remake themselves as a successful businessman with high-falutin’ connections and an English noblewoman, but are soon caught by overeager FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and forced into wearing wires and extending their scam to entrap government officials.
Believe it or not, amidst all of the oversized collars and outlandish suits, Bale—who also added 50 pounds for the role—wrings real pathos out of Irving, making him a three-dimensional character. Adams does the same with Sidney, which is a real feat, considering she’s pretending to be someone else half the time. There’s a streak of genuine sadness from these two misfits, who are determined to make their way “the only way they know how,” as Waylon Jennings once sang.
Cooper’s Richie has his own manic tendencies even before he gets hooked on cocaine, and some of his drug-fueled rages are the funniest moments of the film. Jennifer Lawrence mines gold out of the impossibly dim Rosalyn, who prefers to stay home with her and Irving’s child, but ends of being the life of the party every time she goes out.
I haven’t mentioned Jeremy Renner yet, who of the top-lining talent has a smaller yet key role. He plays the mayor of Camden, New Jersey—a man with mafia ties and a big heart. His character embodies the theme and troubled moral compass of “American Hustle” perfectly. He repeatedly says that all he wants to do is help the people of his city, and is willing to make illegal concessions to do that-for the greater good.
Russell’s movie profiles a post-Watergate era when disillusionment ran high and the national identity was struggling. Even as it profiles criminal behavior from citizens, lawmen, and elected officials, “American Hustle” sympathizes with its miscreants and paints them as victims of a corrupt culture. It does so with an infectious amount of energy and a labyrinthine plot that probably doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. But who cares, when it’s this much fun? Besides, some of it actually happened.
"Philomena", opening today at Liberty Hall, is the new British comedy/drama from director Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liasons," "The Queen"). It stars Steve Coogan as a recently disgraced government adviser who also happens to be an overly judgmental jerk. It's not that Coogan -- who also adapted the book written by his character Martin Sixsmith -- plays it too broadly, it's just that the script makes Sixsmith's inner monologue too overt.
The object of his initial scorn (and fascination, as long as her story pans out enough to make for a real page-turner) is Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). She is a devout Englishwoman who was forced to give her son up for adoption 50 years ago by the nuns who ran the convent she lived and worked in. The story of who her son eventually became and the lies told by the convent to cover up their misdeeds is fascinating, but the majority of "Philomena" is a typical odd-couple road trip, as Sixsmith uncovers the mystery and becomes increasingly outraged.
Will Sixsmith learn to empathize with human beings in general? Will he come to respect the simple-minded old woman and her religious beliefs? Of course he will, but only in the most reductive way -- through a series of half-baked "comic" exchanges that sell out the actors attempts at creating real characters.
Brick Tamland, the dim-witted weather man from another planet played by Steve Carell in 2004′s unlikely cult comedy "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," is a fantastic absurdist creation. He stands out precisely because he’s in a supporting capacity, spouting bizarre non-sequiturs as a counterpoint to Will Ferrell‘s clueless oaf. Both men behave like children, but Tamland is a distinctly weirder creation.
In the new sequel "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues," the very idea of Tamland encompasses everything that is both right—and wrong—about the movie.
The absurd streak of humor that runs throughout the movie is actually its greatest strength. Since the plot is a typical get-the-team-back-together/comeback story, the film relies instead on the many absurdist curveballs that Ferrell and his co-writer and director Adam McKay throw into that template. Even more so than usual in a McKay/Ferrell collaboration, the movie feels like string of sketches very loosely tied together — as if the plot only exists to expose how stale these kinds of comedic blueprints are in the first place.
When the sketches work (and they often do), "Anchorman 2" feels alive with possibilities. But once it’s back to the “story,” all the beats are forced and the overly expositional dialogue has no sting. The artificial nature of the story is part of the point, of course, but there’s not a strong enough satirical streak here to keep it afloat. And, unfortunately, "Anchorman 2" can’t be categorized as a "Airplane!"/"Naked Gun"-style gag-a-minute-comedy because the gags just don’t come quick enough, especially for a two-hour film.
For a movie that devolves into madness as often as it does, the satirical bent of "Anchorman 2" plays it surprisingly safe, consisting of easy swipes at the 24-hour news cycle and the networks’ propensity for creating news where none actually exists. This commentary is good for a couple of laughs, but gets off the hook a tad too easily for being dated because the film takes place in the 1980s.
Finding a satisfying conclusion to a hit-and-miss two-hour comedy that makes little to no sense is a challenge for sure. McKay and Ferrell’s solution is to go full-on "Return of the King" and have at least four endings, none of them hitting the right notes. A series of cameos seems destined to go somewhere funny, but mostly it fizzles under the weight of its own expectations, much like the rest of "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues."