Batman gains weight, sports a really bad hair-do, and marries Katniss Everdeen while trying to strike up a conniving deal with Hawkeye from the “Avengers” movie. Okay, so I may have exaggerated a bit on the plot.
In David O. Russell’s newest film, he reunites some of his cast mates from his 2012 Academy Award winning movie, “Silver Linings Playbook“, for a nostalgic look back at the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operations in the 70’s and 80’s. If you don’t remember what ABSCAM was all about, that’s okay, this movie will fill in the blanks for you. As it says in the opening tag line, “Some of this actually happened”.
Christian Bale, losing his English accent for a thick N.Y. Bronx one, wearing a terrible comb-over, and who gained 40 lbs for this role (gotta love his commitment), plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small time grifter who owns a chain of dry cleaners in 1978 NYC. He eeks out his living by that and by additionally scamming people into buying phony art and giving them “loans” they can’t get returns on. He’s married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a young wife who’s unstable and refuses to leave the house. He’d love to get a divorce from this loveless marriage, but Rosalyn hints at the fact that IF that happens, she “might” spill the beans about Irving and his so-called legitimate business practices. Plus, he loves his adopted son, Danny (Danny and Sonny Corbo) with all his heart.
Enter Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a small town girl with high ambitions. She’ll do whatever it takes to get to the top (stripping, working for Cosmopolitan Magazine, hustling) and she finds Irving’s scamming deals (and Irving) exciting and way to get rich fast. Together they pair up, fall in love, and take buyers for thousands in fake art deals and bogus investments. This helped by Sydney pretending to be a British aristocrat named, “Lady Edith Greensly”. All goes well until they’re busted by FBI agent Richard “Richie” DeMaso (Bradley Cooper–with curly hair, no less!). However, realizing they have potential in the con-artist game, Richie has a scheme: join him in a wild plan to con (and video tape) high ranking members of the city into taking bribes…or take serious jail time.
From there, the con is on, but not without complications. Love complications. While setting the bait all over town by using a phony Arab Sheik from Addis Ababa, Ritchie has fallen in love with Sydney and Sydney has fallen for Ritchie, but is her love for Ritchie real or just a scam? Ritchie, meanwhile, is having delusions of grandeur for the upcoming swindles while his FBI boss (Louis C. K.–excellent) is just trying to calm the neurotic agent down. The major con is aimed squarely at the Mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner with a nice pompadour), a kind-hearted, honest family man who only wants to see his city thrive by bringing in legalized gambling and jobs to Atlantic City. Millions of dollars start to exchange as bribes are accepted, upping ante from local judges to congressmen. But to get more money exchanged, Ritchie, Irving, and a phony Sheik have to associate with some nefarious crime bosses, like Victor Tellegio (Robert DeNiro).
More complications ensue at every turn: the cons don’t turn out right, dinner parties with lovers and wives at the same time make for nail-biting and awkward moments, who loves whom changes direction every fifteen minutes along with loyalties to the con switching back and forth. In the end, the con twists and turns itself inside out and all the players neatly come out in one piece alive, much to the satisfaction of the audience who can finally breath after an emotionally filled roller coaster ride.
Some excellent writing here by Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell, this dramedy shows off the strengths of the actors as they are so effective here. Bale, Adams, Renner, Cooper, and Lawrence and all just incredible, especially Bale and Adams. Bale, who underwent another one of his famous ‘transformations’ to get into character (and God bless him for that), shows you that he’s fast becoming another Lon Chaney, Sr. One wonders that if the role called for a one-legged man, he’s chop off his leg for the part!
And Amy Adams is amazing, not so much because she’s got a hot body, but her style of acting has grown since her “B” movie days. Her scenes without make-up, stripped raw and nerves bared, are just electric.
THE STING (1973)
This was the “little picture that could”. Back in 1973, this Universal Picture garnished 10 Oscar nominations and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. And spawned one the worst sequels I have ever seen. I mean it. It’s awful.
And did I mention the damn fine cast? You got the pairing of ol’ blue eyes, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who did 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” together with the same director, George Roy Hill. Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Eileen Hackett, Ray Walston, Dana Elcar, Harold Gould, and Robert Earl Jones.
With Scott Joplin’s jaunty piano music (“The Entertainer“) playing as a score in the background, we learn the art of the con in several ‘lessons’. The Set-Up, The Hook, The Double-Cross, The Wire, The Shut-Out, and The Sting. Each one plays out like an act of a play where we see how the con is done, but in turn, we the audience get conned as well!
In 1936, grifter Johnny Hooker (Redford) cons $11,000 from an unsuspecting victim. Unfortunately, his victim was a courier for a vicious crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). A corrupt police Lieutenant named William Snyder (Durning) confronts Hooker and demands part of Hooker’s cut, which he does. . . but in counterfeit bills.
Fearing the worse, Hooker leaves for Chicago and locates Henry Gondorff (Newman), a great con-man now in hiding from the FBI in a boardwalk carousel facility, and wants to know how to pull “the big con” on Lonnegan. Gondorff at first says, “No”, but later agrees. He and his moll, Billie, (Hackett) decide to resurrect an elaborate scam known as “the wire”, using a bunch of con artists to create a phony off-track horse betting parlor.
Lonnegan gets baited by Gondorff on a train through a card game and, intimated that he was cheated, wants revenge. Hooker (calling himself Kelly) sets up “the hook” telling Lonnegan that he can take Gondorff for thousands at his off-track parlor by betting on certain horses that Hooker will know for sure in advance who’ll win, place, or show.
Meanwhile, Snyder has tracked Hooker to Chicago, but his pursuit is usurped by undercover FBI agents led by Agent Polk (Elcar), who orders him to assist in their plan to arrest Gondorff by using Hooker. The con is on, the wire is set, the money is placed, Lonnegan is ready, BUT!
The real fun is being taken by the cleverness of the script by David S. Ward. So simple in it’s design, yet so well crafted when it comes down to the con that you, the audience, gets fooled as to who gets conned. And then you have the period of the picture set in the Depression era and the beautiful sets and costumes. Cinematography by Robert Surtees is exquisite and void of any primary colors like the wild “Dick Tracy” movie.
Then you have the actors. The old school actors that bring it. These are the ones that make it all look so easy and made so many young actors flock to Hollywood in the first place. Newman and Redford are at the top of their game here, looking so at ease with other they might as well be having a picnic together.
Everyone is perfectly cast and the production values are high. Oh, check out Shaw’s ‘limp’ in the movie. That’s wasn’t faked or an actor’s choice. Truth was, Shaw, a week before filming, slipped on a wet handball court while staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel and injured his knee! He wore a leg brace during the shoot, which was hidden under his wide 1930’s style pants!