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AMERICAN HUSTLE

When they’re done right, caper movies can have a special kick, and “American Hustle” has definitely been done to a twisted turn. David O. Russell’s loopy, messy reworking of the 1970s Abscam scandal is like “The Sting” with bell bottoms instead of fedoras and Duke Ellington in place of Scott Joplin—not to mention plenty of male-female action rather than bromance. But like that Newman-Redford period puzzler it’s great fun.

Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable with an unruly wig and forty additional pounds (perhaps the ones Matthew McConaughey lost for “Dallas Buyers Club”—an example of the Hollywood way of maintaining balance in the universe), plays Irving Rosenfeld, the quasi-fictional counterpart of real-life con man Mel Weinberg, who was forced by the FBI to participate in the sting operation that led to the conviction of several prominent New Jersey politicians on bribery charges. The script by Russell and Eric Warren Singer changes names and fiddles with facts—the usual “based on a true story” introductory card here becomes “some of this actually happened”—but holds to the general arc of the scam, which persuaded the officials to grease bureaucratic wheels to secure rulings beneficial to a fictitious Arab sheik.

In this telling, Rosenfeld, a small-time con artist working with his mistress-partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who for the purpose of fleecing their marks poses as a British noblewoman, is effectively blackmailed by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into becoming his undercover hireling. The original intent is to target other small-timers, but soon the operation morphs into one aimed at Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He’s basically a good guy, but so anxious to secure investment funds for a casino that will revitalize Atlantic City that he’s willing to involve himself—and other pols—in shady deals to get the money from that phony sheik (actually an FBI agent played by Michael Pena). Building his relationship with Polito requires Rosenfeld to involve his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a wacky, unstable broad who has an agenda of her own—including a face-off with her rival Sydney.

While all this sounds relatively straightforward, however, “American Hustle” jazzes up things with all sorts of wildly off-the-wall twists. The most egregious is the characterization of DiMaso, a guy who perms his hair, lives with his mother, and frankly is more underhanded than the con artists he’s supposedly controlling. (His scenes with his long-suffering, unsupportive boss, played with fumingly submerged impatience by Louis C.K., are priceless.) He even jumps into the sack with Sydney, though she’s still playing the part of Lady Edith. Another is the portrayal of Polito, who sports a hilariously sculpted pompadour and comes across as a mensch just trying to help his constituents, even if he has to cut corners to do so. (In fact, Rosenfeld not only apologizes for taking him down, but tries to get him a lightened sentence.) And just to add a touch of real danger, Robert De Niro shows up as Victor Tellegio, a mob boss who travels from Florida for a conference that could unravel the entire scheme. He brings a bit of genuine menace to what seems an almost absurdly implausible entrapment operation.

And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. The screenplay abounds in convolutions that undercut expectations and take matters in new directions, including a major one toward the close that Russell and Singer might have borrowed from Peter Stone’s “Charade.” And while the general mood is of over-the-top wackiness, there are occasions when the mood turns surprisingly serious—like Tellegio’s appearance, or Rosenfeld’s final encounter with Polito. To be honest, some of the transitions are so abrupt that it seems as though Russell’s lost control and the picture’s going off the rails.

That it never does is largely the result of Bale’s extraordinary performance, which anchors the film, giving it, if you’ll excuse the expression in view of those forty pounds, some real heft. The other leads—Cooper, Adams and especially Lawrence—have showier roles, and they’re all very good, as is Renner. But it’s Bale who holds everything together and keeps the movie emotionally on track. In his hands Rosenfeld comes across as a person you can root for: he may be a crook, but he’s more honest than most of the people he has to deal with. That’s why he—and we—can sympathize with Renner’s Polito, too: he’s actually trying to help people rather than merely line his own pockets. For all its farcical elements, “American Hustle” is really quite sophisticated in the complexity of its characters.

This isn’t a pretty film visually, but production designer Judy Becker, art director Jesse Rosenthal, set decorator Heather Loeffler and costume designer Michael Wilkinson have outdone themselves in capturing the seedy milieu of the late seventies in Jersey, and their work is enhanced by Linus Sandgren’s lithe camerawork and the sharp editing by Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alex Baumgarten. They all help to make this a movie that challenges you to keep up, but keeps giving you great reasons to try—and so does the score, which mingles original music by Danny Elfman with period tunes selected by Susan Jacobs.

Like “The Sting,” “American Hustle” ends up conning viewers as well as some of its characters. And again you’ll be happy to have been so thoroughly had.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Joel and Ethan Coen took filmgoers on a Homeric odyssey across Depression-era America in one of their earlier masterpieces, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Now they offer a smaller-scaled but more poignant journey through another period landscape in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Set mostly in Greenwich Village in 1961, when the renaissance in classic folk music was giving way to an emphasis on performers concentrating on their own songs (a young Bob Dylan is glimpsed at one point), the script focus on Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a talented but struggling guitarist/singer who’s not at all helped by the fact that he’s surly and snappish even to the friends who’ll give the perpetually broke, homeless guy a place to crash for a night or two. On the night we meet him—onstage at the Gaslight Café, singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and very well too—he goes into the back alley to meet somebody, only to be beaten up for reasons that will be explained only at the picture’s end. Somehow he makes his way to the apartment of Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett), an older academic couple, where he awakes the next morning and, in leaving, accidentally lets their cat out.

Scooping up the wayward tabby, Llewyn proceeds to the flat of singing duo Jean (Caret Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), hoping for a place to stay but finding the couch taken by Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), an incredibly well-mannered soldier whose singing career—unlike his own—is on an upward trajectory. He also finds Jean understandably furious, since she’s pregnant after a fling with him—though he tells her not to worry, since from past experience he knows a doctor who’ll perform an abortion.

Already it’s obvious that Llewyn isn’t the nicest guy, or the luckiest. His long-time singing partner recently committed suicide, and his effort to go solo has gone nowhere. His adventures with the Gorfein feline don’t end well, and even a gig with Jim and bass Al Cody (Adam Driver) recording a novelty song miscarries, since he signs away potential royalties for immediate cash and we later hear that the record’s become a smash hit. Desperate for validation, he grabs an offer to drive to Chicago with a crippled, drug-addicted, brutally sarcastic jazz man named Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his laconic chauffeur (Garrett Hedlund) for a make-or-break audition with legendary impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) at the Golden Horn. Again he performs well, but Grossman gives him a brutally accurate assessment of his chances in the business. That takes him to the home of his sister (Jeanine Serralles), whom he promptly offends, and a visit to his father Hugh (Stan Carp), who stares at him blankly from a chair in a rest home even as he sings for him. A drive back to New York through an Ohio snowstorm has posed a couple of important choices for Llewyn, and the way he responds to them allows you to see inside him even better.

Obviously this isn’t your typical rags-to-riches show-biz tale, in which the struggling artist finally finds the recognition he so richly deserves. It’s the Coen version, in which a talented but self-absorbed loser who sponges off everyone he can and shows no empathy for anybody else gets not what he deserves (who does?) but what life brings him, fairly or not. And if that sounds depressing, rest assured that the movie boasts a strain of humor—much of the gallows variety, but funny nonetheless—and a soundtrack of wonderful songs (supervised by T Bone Burnett). It also features exquisite cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (who must have had a wonderful time shooting all the sequences with those cats) and production design (Jess Gonchor), art direction (Deborah Jensen), sets (Susan Bode Tyson) and costumes (Mary Zophres) that capture the period without taking things to excess.

And the cast is superb. Isaac is every inch the scruffy, quietly desperate Davis, begrudging others their small successes and almost automatically managing to alienate anyone he meets. Mulligan, Phillips, Barrett, Timberlake and Driver are effortlessly convincing as those he casually takes advantage of, while Goodman cuts a figure of Falstaffian proportions as the blunt, burned-out blues man.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is like one of the songs the title character specializes in—a somewhat repetitive, meandering tale of unfulfilled yearning, touched with suppressed anger and regretful acceptance. It’s a brilliant portrait of the artist as a failed man, the sort who would fall between the cracks were it not for the artists from a different medium who remind us that it’s well worth observing him despite his flaws, and who possess the skill to bring his world alive again a half-century after its disappearance.