Niagara Gazette

December 17, 2013

CALLERI: Hustlers compete with Disney at theaters

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — “American Hustle” and “Saving Mr. Banks” couldn’t be more different from each other. The former is a whiz-bang of a movie, a madcap exploration of the corruption that roils the goodness in which many believe. The latter is a mellow fable that looks at a two people, a man who wants everyone to share his vision of simplicity and sweetness, and the woman who rejects his viewpoint.

Director David O. Russell, who co-wrote the screenplay for “American Hustle” with Eric Singer, channels two great filmmakers, 1940’s comedy master Preston Sturges, and none other than Martin Scorsese, especially Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” Like Sturges, Russell revels here in off-beat characters and loopy situations. And although his “American Hustle” rejects the violence that Scorsese brought to the amphetamine-fueled “Goodfellas,” Russell does replicate the narrative technique, whiplash editing, and good guys as lovable lugs sensibility.

The colorful film, set in the era of disco and decline, is about con artists and hucksterism. It succeeds so well that you believe its fast-talking, larceny-in-their-hearts thieves could get the Boy Scouts to offer a merit badge in pickpocketing.

Christian Bale, fat of belly and manipulating a toupee on the top of his head like an artist at work (don’t miss the start of the picture), plays Irving Rosenfeld, an owner of a chain of dry cleaners in New York City. He runs a con taking $5000 from fools in exchange for a $50,000 loan that never materializes.

At a swimming pool party on Long Island, Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a sexy, larcenous American, who will pretend she’s British if that’s what you desire. Irving and Sydney bond over Duke Ellington music. Although Rosenfeld is married with an adopted son, he strikes up a sexual relationship with Sydney and works with her on fleecing the dumb and dumber.

They’re small-time crooks, but FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), wanting to move up the ladder, smells a big future after busting them. He delays their jail time if they will help him with his own sting. Bale, Adams, and Cooper are wonderful.

Nabbing the corrupt is the dream of the post-Watergate FBI. Richie forces Irv and Syd to be part of his attempt to nail shady politicians willing to accept bribes. Richie’s scam aims at snaring United States congressmen and some low-level New Jersey politicians, all of whom like the idea of earning extra (illegal) cash from influencing an upcoming plan to turn Atlantic City into an east coast gambling mecca. The scam includes wealthy Arab sheikhs and, of course, members of the Mob.

“American Hustle” is based on a true story. In 1978, the FBI did use a fake sheikh to entrap congressmen. The entrapment aspect generated its own sideshow. That sting was named “Abscam.” The film offers a title card that advises: “Some of this actually happened.”

Russell’s wickedly funny movie is occasionally ragged, and some of the editing can be called into question, but you don’t mind. Jennifer Lawrence earns special praise as Irving’s wife. The acting from all of the huge cast, which also includes Jeremy Renner, Louis C. K., Alessandro Nivola, and Jack Huston is delicious. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography enhances everyone’s sleazy nature. Disco and rock tunes abound.

Watching “American Hustle” is invigorating, and it gives you a jolt of pleasure. You’re elated to have seen it.

Walter Elias Disney was an avuncular Midwesterner, a dreamer who believed in happiness. The author of “Mary Poppins” was a phony Brit named P. L. Travers, who had the personality of a prune. She was really an Australian named Helen Goff who lived a hardscrabble existence with her drunken father (first name Travers), long-suffering mother, and pickle-faced aunt (possibly the true inspiration for Mary Poppins, the magical nanny).

Goff took the name Pamela Lyndon Travers, wrote “Mary Poppins,” and lived the life of a lady of leisure in England. For twenty years, Disney wanted to make a movie from the novel, but the snobbish Travers always said no. She hated everything Disney stood for, especially cartoon animals.

Travers finally visited the Disney Studios just to sniff about. In truth, she needed money. Although there was no signed contract, she drove Disney, the screenwriter, and the songwriters of “Mary Poppins” up-the-wall.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a charming, albeit inventive look, at the time Travers spent at Disney’s Burbank studios. In reality, Disney himself fled to Palm Springs.

Emma Thompson is outstanding as the habitually complaining Travers. Tom Hanks is good as Disney. As a story about how movies are made, the film is very entertaining. How much is to be believed is anyone’s guess. Director John Lee Hancock and his screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith rely too much on pseudo-psychology in order to generate some poignancy amidst the laughter. Overall, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a pleasant diversion.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.