Thursday, December 5, 2013


On the X Factor this year there was a contestant called Tamera Foster. Sixteen years old, blessed with  breathtaking beauty, confidence and passable pipes, Tamera was deemed early on to be a favourite to win the popular karaoke competition. And so it proved for a while: like the other contestants, she would come out on a Saturday in front of the four judges and warble her 'version' of a popular tune, and it seemed fine: she looked amazing, her vocals held up, she was classy and game, like a decent BeyoncĂ© tribute act. But after a while, a weird frailty started creeping in: two weeks in a row, half way through a typically barnstorming performance of some hokey standard, Tamera completely forgot the words. It produced a strange effect, since an ordinary singer in a normal gig would either start again or sing a lalala to cover it up, or do something: but Tamera Foster was on prime-time TV on a Saturday night, and being judged on her performance, and she was an amateur and didn't know what to do. So she didn't do anything: what she didn't know, she left out. So there were weird silences in her songs, where words like 'love' or 'back to you' or 'tell my why' should have been: it made the songs sound like ghosts, and was oddly revealing of the fragility of the performer and the songs themselves.

I thought of Tamera Foster this morning as I was attempting to collect my thoughts on David O. Russell's AMERICAN HUSTLE (eurgh, that rhyme). The film plays like a bold, talented young upstart - full of vigour and brashness; it looks the part. But soon enough holes start appearing in its fabric: little gaps where it misses a comedy beat, or where a dramatic moment fizzles out because an editor didn't know how to end a scene. Russell appears to have seen a fair bit of middle-period Scorsese. All the surface elements are there: the tracking shots, the slow-mo, the freeze-frame, voice-over, the use of music, the heightened acting, Robert de Niro. However these tics do not add up to a classic film, and actually undermine any originality the film might have had. The effect is an odd one: you find yourself watching a film that constantly shouts at you that it is a romp and a blast, but which is actually overlong, a touch uncertain, and I'm afraid to say rather boring. 

The film is about two grifters who are also lovers, Irving and Sydney (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams), who accidentally end up on a con job orchestrated by a cop (Bradley Cooper), designed to bring down corrupt politicians and mafiosi. Jennifer Lawrence plays the dumb wife yin to Amy Adams' brassy moll yang. From the outset, the film is highly stylised: the tone is knockabout comedy, as Christian Bale's character readies himself for a con, meticulously arranging his fantastical comb-over and putting on his gaudiest purple suit (one of many instances in the film in which 'the 70s!' is a joke in itself). Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper join him in their equivalent 70s finery, and the three trade some roustabout lines before entering the con-job: the camera films them in slow motion as they walk down a corridor to the sound of America's 'A Horse With No Name' (one of many instances in the film of musical-pictorial disconnect). The con goes wrong of course, and then the film heads off into a de rigueur 'how we got here' segment, complete with voice-over by Adams and Bale detailing how the two met and became lovers and co-racketeers. He was a fast-talking, lowly crook; she was a beautiful, unfulfilled fashion assistant looking for something better - of course they were. 

Bizarrely, the job that the film starts on isn't the crux of the film at all, but a fairly routine plot point beyond which the film carries on for another hour and a half. It's as if a by-the-numbers filmmaker (which Russell has never been until now) were ticking off a checklist and putting in a false start purely because it is part of the tradition to which he is paying homage. This rather tired narrative ploy in a film otherwise full of razzle-dazzle is matched by other weird-out combinations of success and failure: in particular, the way the actors struggle to get a handle on their characters, veering dangerously from exalted, out-there screaming and laughter to a much more subdued, even somnolent tone, often within the same scene. There is a scene between Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams that emphasises this: their characters are attracted to each other, and have promised to be honest with each other, and at some point to sleep together. Adams and Cooper at first play it larger-than-life, with some saucy pulling up of her gown on her part and a great deal of huffing and puffing on his - but then the tone shifts as she cries and reveals her actual identity; a suitable reaction from him is missing; the scene carries on regardless, sex is once more on the table, she hits him with a hard object - cut to him looking a little stunned, with only a couple of bruise marks. They have gone from lovers on the brink of sexy sex to devastated people who don't know each other - but all of the dramatic elements along the way have felt weak or contrived, and each narrative turn unbelievable. It feels like a scene that hasn't been properly blocked, where the actors have been left on their own, crucially under-directed and unable to find points of connection between each other, and between one moment and the next, as the scene develops. 

Another scene that isn't blocked properly: Jennifer Lawrence listening in on Irving as he conducts a shady business deal on the phone. Irving can hear her on the other receiver in their house and shouts at her to get off the phone: the camera instantly swerves to the other side of the house, to reveal... the huge gag that she is listening in merely a few metres away from him! And Jennifer Lawrence hangs up, saying, "What? I wasn't doing anything!" - so far so comedic. But Lawrence utters her line a full second after she should have, because the camera movement was so fast from one character to the other, resulting in a scene that ends in a sort of white noise, a puff of nothing. 

Everywhere this absence, this void is felt: it's there in the oddly lacking rhythm - the way a joke often fails to land; in the hokey characterisation - the way Jennifer Lawrence is signified by a particular brand of nail varnish; in scenes that tail off; in the constant and often clumsy use of music (at one point, David O. Russell uses merely the muted introduction of Ella Fitzgerald's 'It's De-Lovely', cutting the song off just before it gets to the spangly, brassy verses - which produces an odd sensation of petering out, where you might have thought the scene was gearing up to something). 

This isn't to say that the film doesn't have its moments - there are some good jokes, enjoyable outfits, some beautifully shot sequences and a couple of moments where the actors find something compelling in the rather hollow shells of their characters - but the film has a strange tone throughout, as if a robbery had been conducted in which burglars came into the film and stole some of its jokes, its sparkle and characterisation. 

At one point in the X Factor, Tamera Foster's mentor advised her to stop trying to sing like BeyoncĂ© and be herself. Word to the wise, David O.