Two jaw-droopingly good films loom, from major filmmakers. Yes, it’s Awards Season in The North, and we filmgoers are the winners! Both of these excellent flicks demand your attention on a big screen with an audience, because they’re both really, really, laugh-out loud funny, in a truly mature, intelligent way. No slapstick here, just honest humour arising from situation, character, and performance.
American Hustle ****1/2 (out of five)
Everyone in the cast of David O Russell’s new ‘70s-set con-caper American Hustle deserves an award (and they’ll all probably get one: my money would be they’ll share the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Award come January 18th) but, particularly, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence display new and versatile aspects of their admirable ranges. While both of their characters are full of all the things you’d want in a brilliant performance – emotional truth, variation, clear motivation, rich inner life – there are also clear new hands being played: Lawrence doubles down on her comedic chops with the film’s (and possibly the year’s) funniest performance, while Adams, always a cutie, claims her stake in the world of the sex vixen: she’s simply hot in every shot, and she, her character and the camera all know it (not to mention every man in the movie, and there are a lot of them).
Never to be outdone, Christian Bale goes full retard or at least full shlub, with a big belly (I think it’s real, and if so, it’s gross) and a horrible comb over. Bradley Cooper has a tight beard and tighter black curly hair, and the rest of the cast are appropriately wigged out.
Perhaps because he knows the ‘70s dos will generate laughs, Russell cleverly calls attention to them, and indeed, has a lot of fun with the whole concept of artifice (which makes great sense for a con-man movie). From the very first shot, of Bale adding extra wig to his stringy mess of already artificial hair, Russell lets us in on the joke, and reminds us throughout we’re watching a film, with comedic visual references to other movies (there’s a beauty pinging The Fighter) and idiosyncratic choices (such as letting Alessandro Nivola give his entire performance in the style of Christopher Walken – I’m not kidding).
None of this distracts from – indeed only adds to – the sheer, massive fun of this completely enjoyable, crowd-pleasing romp. Solidly assured from beginning to end, compulsively watchable, very funny, beautifully textured and surprisingly intricately structured (there are three narrators, and the temporal structure is very sophisticated), American Hustle – even the name is downright perfect, being ironic and complex while also its own gag – is a delight, a sure Awards-season contender, and worth every cent you spend on a ticket. As for the plot, it is such a pleasure that I won’t reveal a dram of it here. Settle down in your seat and enjoy all two hours and nine minutes of it for yourself. Highly recommended.
Inside Llewyn Davis ****1/2 (out of five)
Extremely funny, mysterious, precise, involving and meaningful, Inside Llewyn Davis immediately joins the ranks of the great Coen Brothers films, getting deep into the whats, whys, hows and wherefores of a single, intriguing character in great depth. Closest in scale and intent to A Serious Man, but with the gorgeous period cinematography of O Brother Where Art Thou, the minute examination of the artistic psyche of Barton Fink, and very often the laugh-out-very-loud hilarity of Raising Arizona, this examination of a struggling folk singer in Manhattan’s West Village facing a crisis of confidence – just as his very style is about to explode via Bob Dylan – is a true gem, wonderful, rich and fulfilling from start to satisfying finish.
Oscar Isaac, who has been following a true journeyman’s slog through Hollywood (in The Bourne Legacy his credited name is “Outcome #3”) finally gets full and centre stage as the titular Llewyn, a not-untalented folk singer who may just be a couple of years ahead of his time, and who is not particularly flourishing since no longer being part of a one-album duo (think very early Simon and Garfunkle). Self-destructive and unsettled, yet not without charm and certainly charisma, Llewyn, like all great Coen Brothers’ “heroes”, is his own worst enemy. The film begins with him performing at a venerable Village club, and although, by the end, we have hardly gone on a particularly epic journey (although we have gone to various New York boroughs and to Chicago) we have certainly gotten to know Llewyn and his various friends, colleagues, lovers, family members and supporters very intimately indeed.
The “supporters” represent one of the beautiful aspects of this quiet story. Llewyn, by many accounts, would be a prick. But there are people that love him, and forgive him, for they see the good inside. It’s a hopeful message, and delivered subtly but surely. The Coens, after all, long ago entered the ranks of supreme filmmakers.
The period design – mainly New York on the cusp of, and then deep into, winter – is stunning. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel colors the whole thing in a wintry soft grey, which is somehow perfectly in tune with Llewyn’s personality (which may include a level of clinical depression, though never stated). The soundtrack is magnificent, overseen by the legendary T Bone Burnett; Llewyn mainly sings traditional folk material, but not stuff that I’d heard before. Oscar Isaac does his own singing and I suspect plays his own guitar.
Why not five stars for this brilliant film? Its only real flaw is that it’s quite episodic, and some of the episodes sideline the narrative a little too strongly. That said, they all serve a purpose. A relatively short sequence involving John Goodman could easily have been snipped right out of the picture (or the script) with no collateral damage, but, although it derails the narrative to a degree, it offers a great insight into the place of folk music, and its practitioners, amongst American music’s rich timeline, with all of its accompanying attitudes and vices.
The Coens are a cinematic treasure, with masterpieces major and minor to their credit. This is a major one, albeit in a minor key.