The con is on for Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
AMERICAN HUSTLE (15)
Prefaced by a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer – “Some of this actually happened” – David O Russell’s comedy about a hare-brained scheme to expose corruption within the corridors of power opens with a con man tending to his “unnecessarily elaborate” comb-over.
The obese scoundrel stands in front of a mirror – belly protruding, man boobs succumbing to gravity – and meticulously glues fake mane to his bald pate then moulds what little hair he does have around the centre-piece.
Pleased with his work, the swindler struts into a neighbouring room, where an argument ensues and an enraged associate cruelly ruffles the coiffeur into humiliating disarray.
This protracted prologue perfectly encapsulates American Hustle: a self-indulgent, painfully funny and scattershot film that attempts to con us into believing it is smarter and funnier than the glossy and expensive mess that flickers before our eyes.
Russell is blessed with a talented ensemble cast and, individually, they deliver powerhouse performances that elicit howls of laughter or tug the heartstrings.
Unfortunately, putting all these misfit characters together in one film feels like the inmates have taken over the asylum while the writer-director casually strings together polished vignettes with scant regard for narrative clarity.
Like a Christmas bauble, the film is beautiful and sparkly, even dazzling at times, but also hollow.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a brilliant con man, trapped in a loveless marriage to a harridan wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), who makes it painfully clear she will demand sole custody of their son if Irving divorces her.
“She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” laments Irving in droll voiceover.
So the hustler throws himself into his work, recruiting inexperienced sidekick Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who poses as an English aristocrat in order to bleed funds from gullible businessmen.
Irving and Sydney are arrested by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who forces them to put their dubious talents to good use by entrapping New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and his underworld associates.
As Irving and Sydney lure Carmine into their web, an increasingly jealous and vengeful Rosalyn threatens to destroy the undercover operation as well as Irving’s burgeoning love for his assistant.
Inspired by the ABSCAM FBI sting of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which brought down several politicians and public servants, American Hustle has moments of brilliance.
Sydney and Rosalyn’s big showdown brings out the best in Lawrence and Adams, both using verbal barbs rather than claws to draw blood.
A mirrorball dancefloor seduction to the disco beat of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love is sweating and sensual, and Rosalyn’s destruction of an early microwave (“the science oven”) is a hoot.
But despite these undeniable pleasures, you cannot escape the pain of American Hustle’s frequent longueurs, overbloated running time and shambolic plot.
A hot mess? More like pleasantly lukewarm.
MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (12A)
It’s tempting to allow the profound sense of loss that greeted the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, 2013, to fog critical judgement of Justin Chadwick’s worthy biopic.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is reverential and respectful, adapted from Mandela’s memoirs of the same name by Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands).
There is nothing here to desecrate the memory of the South African statesman, who was a lynchpin in the abolition of apartheid.
Equally, Chadwick’s gallop through 52 years of turmoil doesn’t delve into the minutiae of a flawed human being behind the myth.
It’s a handsomely crafted yet emotionally underwhelming skim-read of important historical footnotes.
Mandela’s 27-year incarceration, most of it on Robben Island, accounts for about 40 minutes of the earnest picture but feels considerably longer.
The film opens in the Xhosa village of Mandela’s youth with a slow-motion tribal ritual that ushers Nelson into manhood.
We jump forward to 1942 Johannesburg, where Mandela (Idris Elba) is an idealistic lawyer, whose eyes are gradually opened to the harsh reality of an unfair justice system.
He weds nurse Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) and they raise a family but the marriage buckles under the strain of his increasing involvement with the African National Congress (ANC).
They divorce in 1958 as Mandela and his ANC brothers stand trial for treason – the same year he meets, courts and marries social worker Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris), who passionately believes in his crusade.
“If they want a war, we will give them a war,” Nelson asserts, abandoning his pacifist leanings in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, which results in the deaths of 69 black protesters.
The ANC begins a sabotage campaign, meeting violence with violence, and Nelson is sentenced to life in prison alongside fellow activists including Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge), Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa), Raymond Mhlaba (Zolani Mkiva) and Andrew Mlangeni (Simo Mogwaza).
Culminating in Mandela’s release from prison and the 1994 elections, Long Walk To Freedom tips its hat to key facts we already knew.
There is a heart-rending scene of Mandela receiving a telegram informing him of the death of his firstborn son Thembi in a car accident, and iconic scenes of a grey-haired Mandela and Winnie walking hand-in-hand out of Victor Verster prison.
Elba is more physically imposing than his subject but he captures the cadences of Mandela’s speech and delivers rousing calls to arms with aplomb.
Harris is equally impressive as the woman who was wrenched away from her children and suffered physical and emotional abuse to break her spirit.
The 146-minute running is both too brief to summarise Mandela’s entire life and too long to sustain key episodes that Nicholson chooses as his narrative.
We want less and more, and settle for something in between.
LAST VEGAS (12A)
Cut from the same frayed cloth as The Hangover, Last Vegas is a raucous comedy about four sexagenarian friends, whose cosy existence unravels during a boozy stag weekend in the Nevada desert.
Underlying tensions bubble to the surface, marital secrets are finally aired and one of the pensionable posse stiffens his resolve when a buxom young thing willingly offers herself to him.
The four old-timers also raise a glass to an army of scantily clad lovelies as unlikely judges of a poolside bikini competition compered by RedFoo, shaggy-haired front man of electro-rap duo LMFAO.
Screenwriter Dan Fogelman, who previously penned Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Guilt Trip, certainly knows how to peddle lustful fantasy across the age divide.
As one of the characters tartly surmises, this is “the first bachelor party that could be covered under Medicaid.”
Fogelman also delivers an array of snappy one-liners so while the plot of Last Vegas might creak with familiarity, the film packs more big laughs into 105 minutes than The Hangover shoehorned into an entire trilogy.
Director Jon Turteltaub undercuts the geriatric lechery with genuine sweetness.
There are some lovely exchanges between the lead actors as they confront years of regret and mortality against a gaudy backdrop of gambling machines, neon lights and rooftop roller-coasters.
“My brain cannot conceive how old this body is,” rues one of the group wistfully.
The ringmaster of the tomfoolery is Billy (Michael Douglas), who lost the love of his life to best friend Paddy (Robert De Niro) and has been commitment-shy ever since.
On the spur of the moment, Billy decides to propose to his trophy girlfriend Lisa (Bre Blair).
“She’s 32,” Billy informs pal Archie (Morgan Freeman), who is resting in New England with his son Ezra (Michael Ealy).
“I have a haemorrhoid that’s almost 32,” quips Archie, who agrees to join Billy and the rest of the gang in Sin City for the stag party.
Sam (Kevin Kline), the third member of the troupe, departs home with the blessing of wife Miriam (Joanna Gleason).
Meanwhile, Paddy, who hasn’t spoken to Billy since Sophie died, is lured to Las Vegas with a lie.
A sexy lounge singer called Diana (Mary Steenburgen) convinces him to stay, re-igniting the old rivalry between Paddy and Billy for her worldly-wise affections.
Last Vegas defies the odds and gambles on the star power of the cast and Fogelman’s heartfelt script to deliver an entertaining mix of laughter and tears.
Freeman and Kline demonstrate impeccable comic timing while Douglas and De Niro rebuild bridges with a deft touch that treats us and the characters with respect.
Admittedly there are a few missteps and the occasional whiff of sexism, but Turteltaub’s film has its pacemaker in the right place.