Review: Spike Jonze’s Her

I love Her.

Once in a while a film comes along that is so original, so inventive and so graceful, so clever and so immaculately built, that being smitten is obvious. But this is no trifling affection; as I basked in the sheer loveliness of Spike Jonze’s new film, it’s orangey-glow warming my face and innards, I was awed and overwhelmed and smiling that moronically wide smile we usually save for lovers. I watched it twice, and can’t wait to again. I love Her, and I’d like to buy Her a bunch of daisies and serenade Her with a boom-box under the window.

her1This is a film about a man who falls in love with an operating system.

Our hero Theodore Twombly is a loner with a Nabokovian name who provides romance to those too busy to conjure it up themselves, via a website called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters, which is a far sneakier version of our greeting card companies. He’s nearly-divorced, lives alone, likes to wear his pants right under his ribs and plays atmospheric video games that seem endless — not to be confused with pointless — and yet happens to be what may well be called a professional romantic. He loves the idea of love, even if it has already walloped him in the gut.

Theodore lives in the future, or something like it. It may merely be just a better-designed present, an iPresent. It’s a world where things are beautiful and functional and minimal, where Apple must have won and Jonathan Ive dominates all, where form is charming enough to give way to function while remaining gorgeous. It’s never specified, but it doesn’t seem a distant future. It’s relatable to possibly an alarming degree, what with random chatrooms and the ubiquity of people walking around talking into their earpieces. (Twombly’s earpiece looks like a tiny seashell, as if perpetually held up in the hope of hearing the sea.) As night fades into day, we glance screensaverishly over skyscrapers for miles and miles; for this future vision of large-tall Los Angeles, Jonze has shot larger-taller Shanghai, and that says much about where we might be headed.

One unremarkable afternoon, Twombly picks out a new operating system that promises to be more than the usual, a digital consciousness that is not just intuitive but actually possesses intuition. He turns it on at home that night, and the setup question ‘Would you like your OS to have a male or a female voice?’ is immediately followed by ‘How would you describe your relationship with your mother?’ Twombly is stumped but must have gotten something very right indeed, for the next “Hi” we hear is bursting with buoyancy, a girl’s voice brimming with eager, spunky energy. She picks out the name Samantha for herself and Twombly sniggers. ‘Was that funny?’, she asks. ‘Yeah,’ he says. She laughs. ‘Oh good, I’m funny.’ She sounds delighted.

And so Theodore falls in love with Samantha.

The point isn’t that Theodore falls for the central conceit; the point is that we do. He’s a loner who hasn’t “been social” in some time, but we fall for Samantha just as hard as he does, and the romance they share envelops us. We don’t feel — like, say, in the touching Lars And The Real Girl, where Ryan Gosling is smitten by a blow-up doll — that the protagonist is an outcast making do with something unreal; instead Jonze presents us with a relationship we invest in and root for. It is a world where dating one’s OS isn’t at all unheard of, or frowned upon. It is uncommon, but for the adventurous, like the early-adopters who’ll buy an iPad the earliest, people looked at with bemused admiration by the curious and the smart.

The detailing is exquisite. Ever since computers have tried to ‘talk,’ and here I’m thinking of early MacinTalk, the only voices that sounded realistic were the whispers and, well, the exaggeratedly robotic ones. Samantha’s voice is real as can be, naturally, but its dreamy breathiness is often a result of her being whispery. Samantha does his basic tasks but is offended when he accidentally gives her a command rather than a request. ‘Read email,’ he says, and there is the briefest and most crucial of pauses. ‘O-kay, I will read e-mail for The-o-dore Twom-bly,’ she says in her best Data-voice, underlining each syllable with robotic syncopation. He laughs and apologises immediately, as if asking his operating system to check his email is impolite. And you thought Siri could be demanding.

Theodore takes Samantha out with him, fitting a safety-pin to the base of his shirt-pocket so that his ‘phone’-camera peeps out of his pocket, so she can look out and see what he sees. And the width of the device and the safety-pin are so similar that the pin looks like its base, making his pocket appear bottomless. Function over form, yes, but what marvellous form. This is a beautiful film thoroughly besotted with its own elegance — its fragility underscored by Arcade Fire’s tinkly-twinkly background score — as it deserves to be.

her2Joaquin Phoenix dons a moustache to play Twombly, and shows us that he too, the master of tortured characters, can grin like an aforementioned loon as he falls head over heels in love. It’s a wistful performance, and Phoenix is stirringly great as he makes Twombly vulnerable and flawed and oh so much like you and me. Scarlett Johansson shines as Samantha, enthusiastic and sincere, sensual and dominating, increasingly intelligent and thus increasingly exasperated. “I’ve seen you feel joy,” she says to Theodore, “I’ve seen you marvel at things,” her voice coming from a place so pure it seems unreal. She’s rousingly good, inspiringly good. We never see her on screen, but this is Johannson at her finest. We sense her growth as she starts off asking questions about everything and is soon “proud of feeling” her own feelings, and we are both amused and afraid of her at different points in the film.

It is rare to watch a film and feel your jaw drop as you, well, “marvel at things.” Her could easily and cleverly have been a satire, but Jonze’s film — which, contrary to what this review might have led you to believe, does contain other people, co-workers and friends and beautiful ex-wives and real women to touch and kiss and feel —  is more affectionate than it is cold, more full-blooded than it is brutal. Her is, by far, the best picture of the year, and miles ahead of the other Oscar nominated films, but those comparisons don’t seem at all relevant when I sit back and smile (stupidly wide) at the impressions the film has left. This review, believe me, could be six times its size.

For all its conceptual highs, Her is not a film about technology, though it is partly a cautionary fable. This is a film about love. A film to love.

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, 14 February 2014

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Review: Saving Mr Banks

savingmrbanks1Before this film came along, the only Mrs Travers I knew was Bertram Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia,  a wildly impractical and deliriously stubborn woman with loony ideas and a masterful chef. The only aunt Bertie liked, in short, and a character Wodehouse described, with atypical generosity, as “built rather on the lines of Mae West.”

The writer PL Travers, on the other hand — played by the doughty Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks — is far more tightly wound and prim-lipped, as if yet to Dahlia-tise. Writer of a beloved series of children’s books, she’s being hounded by a big commercial studio to let them adapt her work into a movie, a movie she fears will end up too garish, and miss the whole point of the book.

It’s a solid getting-along setup, and sounds like a hoot — even without America’s most cherished actor playing the one and only Walt Disney.

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Promise, then, is writ large across this peculiar film — part self-congratulatory corporate pat, part ode to selling-out, part the idea that The Mouse knows best — and it might have delivered better on this were it not mostly inaccurate. Mrs Travers herself, most notably, while indeed notoriously particular about the adaptive process, was a relatively bohemian free spirit, not the closed-off schoolmarm we laugh at in the film before coming along to her side after seeing her conveniently mawkish childhood.

But come come, is this truly a surprise? That the House of Mouse has finally allowed a story about its mythologised creator, and that they felt the need to tailor the facts around for the sake of a sweeter parable? That the studio that changed everything it touched — giving Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli a girlfriend at the climax of The Jungle Book, for example —  would take a perfectly intriguing character and turn her into a caricature?

In fact, considering the fact that this film about the making of Mary Poppins coming just as 50th anniversary editions of Mary Poppins are itself stocking shelves anew, Saving Mr Banks could well be considered the Disney-est film of all, a full-length advertisement for the classic, a film simplified and candied and self-aggrandising in the most blatant way.

But hark, it works. Despite — or because of — this very syrupiness, and because of its extraordinary cast, the film works even as it falls short. What’s that they said about a spoonful of something?

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Emma Thompson soars above the material as if clutching an enchanted umbrella that refuses to stay grounded in mediocrity. She’s an overcorrecting ogre, one who chews up her American driver so much that he, confused, begins addressing her simply as “Mrs.” She can’t abide made-up words or moustaches where there were none, and in one astonishing moment she makes Walt Disney promise not to use the colour red in “her film.” And yet she thaws… to a tune buoyant enough to forsake an inch of grammar, to the fact that a film is not a book, to Walt and — in a delightful wordless moment — to Mickey Mouse.

savingmrbanks2Tom Hanks as Uncle Walt is spot-on, a character drenched in magical sunniness but with an off-screen cough. He’s flummoxed by Mrs Travers’ reluctance, but doggedly makes it his mission to win her over, saying whatever it takes to get the job done, but only carrying out said manipulations because he promised his daughters there’d be a Mary Poppins film. This take-no-prisoners affability is both overwhelming and awe-inspiring, and it’s a shame that this first flawless glimpse we get of Hanks as Disney is in a supporting role. Walt is a legend among legends, a true visionary who lived quite the life — I first came across the word “impresario” when I, knee-high and Goofy-lovin’ and fascinated, read about Walt — and Tom-Disney could actually make for a sensational franchise. (Then again, perhaps this was a trial run and great Disney-extolling plans are already afoot.)

Everyone in the film is top-notch, even those in bit-roles. Paul Giamatti plays the aforementioned limo driver and delivers lines so cheery they’d have fallen flat when mouthed by lesser actors; Jason Schwarzman and BJ Novak strike up the musical cavalry as the composing Sherman brothers; Bradley Whitford is suitably hapless as Don DaGradi, the Mary Poppins screenwriter (Mrs Travers immediately reminds us he’s a “co-”screenwriter); Annie Rose Buckley, as the young Pamela Travers, is insanely adorable and bright eyed; and Colin Farrell turns in a soft but exceptional performance as her father, a man both beautiful and damned.

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It is, in the end, as you would expect it to be. Which doesn’t mean its any less joyous. We can argue about its truth — and its darker, commercial truths — for hours, but sometimes the truth could really use the sugar. If Disney’s ways did lead to a film that generations upon generations of children remain besotted by, then he may well have been in the right. This film, by admiring that instead of questioning it, loses its sharpness: but candyfloss could do without an edge.

Saving Mr Banks is too long, too sentimental, too hacky in bits, but, ultimately, it’s truly chipper in a way most films have forgotten how to be. It might not be supercalafragilisticexpialidocious, sure, but at least it points us in that direction.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 7, 2014

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Your favourite PSH film?

Philip Seymour Hoffman has left us. But his films will endure.

Which is your favourite PSH performance?

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Goodbye, Master

That fat guy.

The first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman was in Scent Of A Woman, playing an uppity prep-school bully. I vividly remember that floppy hair falling onto his round face, scrunched up all the time, as if the sun was glaring right into his eyes even in the shade. That fat guy who made the sickeningly sweet hero appear noble, that fat guy with the smirk of superiority spread across his mug.

He began popping up in notable movies, movies like Patch Adams and When A Man Loves A Woman which got a lot of television-time, and genuinely great movies where he played weirdos, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia and The Big Lebowski. Here was a young and seemingly fearless guy, a guy deftly turning into one of those character actors New York Times reviewers call “reliably excellent.”

lester

Then, in a landmark Cameron Crowe movie called Almost Famous, he played legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and guided many of my generation about journalism. Too cool to act cool, he acerbically gave us the straight dope: about life and faith and conviction and rock, and when I turned film critic a few years later, I picked his words as my survival mantra:

“You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But you’ll get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.”

(Thank you, PSH. Truly.)

It takes a lot to sell words that fiendishly simple, and Hoffman did it with such authority that while he might not have been the film’s leading man, he emerged its brightest light. Its golden god, as it were.

And it was in him we found a man willing to debase himself, to play the fool, to go out on whatever limb was furthest, all for the glory of the movie. The length of the role never mattered, and — unlike in A Late Quartet, which contained one of his finest performances — Hoffman had no trouble playing second violin.

Soon it became clear that he was one of those special actors who made an impression no matter what cinematic world he inhabited. In 2004, he appeared in a hideous film called Along Came Polly, a Ben Stiller vehicle where Hoffman’s Sandy Lyle spoke candidly about “sharting”, a grotesque scatological gag about how he defecated while breaking wind, and did it so often he’d had to coin a word for it. It was an… unfortunate film, and I wondered whether he was to be mired forever in material so clearly beneath him.

One year later, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Capote: a performance where this grizzly giant turned small and fey purely by mannerism; a performance that, through its cold mercilessness, remains a scalding critique of writer Truman Capote. Suddenly it became clear that this man could do anything at all. He could be funny, vicious, profane, cunning, brilliant, slackjawed, omniscient, obsequious, perverse, perfect — and he shone each time, often more dazzling than the films he was in. A lumbering large man who — when need be — could swiftly twist and burst into song, nimbly tangoing with a roomful of naked women.

latequartetThat fat guy. Even that girth seemed to affect different approaches in service to the material: he could be genially plump, imposingly Falstaffian, a bloated artist, a chubby romantic, a stout sibling, a flabby film-writer.. And all while staying the same size. To paraphrase something an iconic actor once told another icon who shared Philip Seymour’s last name: other performers starved for parts or stuffed themselves with protein, but Hoffman acted.

His filmography boasts of some of the finest directors of all time: Sidney Lumet, The Coen Brothers, David Mamet, Mike Nichols, Cameron Crowe. And his most significant collaboration was fittingly with a filmmaker regarded the most talented of his generation. Paul Thomas Anderson cast Hoffman whenever he could, and the duo grew together — from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to Punch-Drunk Love to The Master — bold and defiant and majestic, rising dizzyingly past any expectations.

The last few years showed his willingness to hurtle past any boundary, to endow simple parts with bittersweet nuance, and to dare writers to come up with a performance that would be a challenge. Charlie Kaufman scooped up the gauntlet and wrote the impossible Synecdoche, New York — about an artist who creates a New York within New York, one that mirrors his shambolic life through a warped lens — and Hoffman trounced the writing, rising above the meta-trickery and giving us a bravura performance that might well be his legacy. A blowhard and a nitpicker, a failure and a bastard, a genius and a true visionary. It’s all there, and thanks to his propensity to stun us, that might not even be part of your top three Philip Seymour Hoffman films.

That, in fact, might have been his greatest feat. To surprise us every single time, come what may. To show us a simple enough boxed-up character and then spring out in a way we could never anticipate. He’d roll up his sleeves, make us understand and believe and wait, and then — with a flourish, while his patter enchanted us — the stubbly master would yank a rabbit out of his baseball cap. Always without warning. Always off-guard.

And now he’s dead. Before the devil could know it.

~

First published Rediff, February 4, 2014

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Review: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave

12-years-a-slaveStrange Fruit will never quite sound the same again.

The old poem — immortalised in song first by Billie Holiday, though Jeff Buckley’s live cover remains a haunting personal favourite — tells us of lynching, of how Southern trees bear morbidly strange fruit. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Steve McQueen’s relentless motion picture captures it all, from the bodies to the trees, from the pastoral scenes to the twisted mouths. 12 Years A Slave is an admittedly rough watch, but it is a conventional one, an old-fashioned swallow of bitter cinematic tonic for audiences too used to their spoonfuls of silver-screen sugar.

American cinema hasn’t focussed much on the most sordid chapter in their history, but we have encountered all of this  — the cotton plantations, the blood, the evil slavers and the put-upon hero full to the brim with honest-to-Gawd nobility — very recently indeed with Quentin Tarantino’s last film, one that took that alarming backdrop and turned it, preposterously enough, into something resembling a Spaghetti Western. McQueen, a British filmmaker often as audacious with his own methods, chooses here to approach Solomon Northup’s eponymous memoir with theatrical classicism.

The result, then, is Django Unchained by way of Shyam Benegal. It doesn’t flinch, it doesn’t let up, and — perhaps disappointingly, for those expecting the McQueen flavour — it doesn’t surprise.

What works in favour of the film are the performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor is extraordinary as Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery, confounded and determined and frequently driven to despair by his impossible yet tragically common situation. Paul Giamatti makes hackles rise as he sells off human livestock with uncaring professionalism, and Benedict Cumberbatch does well as a slaver with half a conscience. The performance pitted directly opposite Ejiofor is that of McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, playing a demented white maniac slaver with as much glee as Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin’s film; except he plays it with more realistic menace. He’s scarily good.

Lupita Nyong’o shines as Patsey, a frequently abused labourer desperate for a bar of soap, and Alfre Woodard — as a former slave now married to a plantation owner — provides the film’s most intriguing character. Patsey might not have herself a bar of soap, but when she’s sitting at Mistress Shaw’s ornate table, she’s allowed a macaroon.

And while it is a fine ensemble, it is surprising to see this much reliance on the familiar. Besides the names already mentioned, there’s Paul Dano as an evil overseer, Beasts Of The Southern Wild stars Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry in small roles, and — in the film’s most fatal misstep — producer Brad Pitt playing the one upstanding white man who does the right thing.

12 Years A Slave is gorgeously shot by McQueen’s lensman Sean Bobbitt, with visuals that will remain etched in our imaginations. It’s also a wonderfully paced film, brisk despite its uncompromising brutality, a film that doesn’t feel a dozen years long. Perhaps this is not as it should be. Either way, I do wish McQueen hadn’t gotten Hans Zimmer to do the music score; it makes the film feel all Amistad-y.

At the end of the film — spoiler alert to all those who don’t know what the film is called, I guess — and before the credits, white text on a dark background spells out what happened to Northup after his twelve years. About his life, his appeals to the judiciary, his book and the way he supported the underground resistance as a free man. He might well have found his spirit in the dozen years he — and McQueen — have told us about, but I can’t help shake the feeling McQueen picked the wrong end of the story to film.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, January 31, 2014

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Review: Sohail Khan’s Jai Ho

jaiho2Like with Alok Nath jokes, it all began with Maine Pyar Kiya. That Sooraj Barjatya hit had characters (with “friend” written on their baseball caps) moronically state that friends don’t thank each other or apologise, a preposterous declaration which must have led the next generations into an era of boorish dickishness in the name of dosti.

Not much has changed 25 years later as Salman Khan, in his latest film — an uncredited and inexplicably violent take on Pay It Forward — starts telling people not to say thanks, but instead help three people in need, and tell them to help three other people, and so on. (In the film this leads to Salman passionately drawing stick figures while people stand around him, cheering as they help him multiply numbers by 3. Um, yeah.)

Sohail Khan, Bhai’s bhai and the director of Jai Ho, obviously likes the idea and extends this welfare policy charitably towards familiar but out-of-work actors, thus negating the need for extra. Everyone from the rickshaw-wallah (Mahesh Manjrekar) to Nameless Corrupt Cop No 2 (Sharad Kapoor) is a recognizable face; even the neighbourhood drunk is “Khopdi” from Nukkad.

In the middle of this world stands Salman Khan, playing himself. Khan, Bollywood’s real-life answer to Derek Zoolander, does his thing like only he can. And the crowd responds. Sitting in a single-screen theatre, the air was filled with shrill, thrilled whistles as soon as the censor certificate hit the screen. The first glimpse of Khan — via braceleted wrist — had the crowd in paroxysms. Imagine a movie theatre full of 14-year-old girls getting their first glimpse of Michael Jackson (Or McCartney. Or Bieber. Pick a generation) except with grown men shrieking instead of preteen girls. (During the climactic fight sequence, these men raucously yelled “kapda utaar”, breathlessly exhorting their bhai to peel off his shirt and make their day. It’s more blatantly than any of our leading ladies get objectified, that’s for sure.)

jaiho1People get attacked; Salman helps. People need stenographers; Salman helps. A little girl needs to go to the restroom; Salman helps. Someone grabs his sister’s collar, Salman snarls. You get where this film is going, yes? In his own lunkheaded manner, perhaps this very choice of film is Salman being sensitive. Perhaps he feels that people watching his film will go out and help other people… But to what end? Despite the hamfisted direction (at one point Suniel Shetty shows up on a highway and starts shooting people with a goddamned tank) the film’s main problem is that Jai Ho isn’t about being a samaritan or paying it forward; it’s about a man who can smash the system all by himself. Not entirely relatable, nope.

Meanwhile, amid the sea of familiar faces peeks the new girl, Daisy Shah. She makes her way onto the screen doing pseudo-Indian classical dance steps while wearing cowboy boots. She’s trying really hard to be MTV but is only applauded, rather disturbingly, by middle-aged folks while the kids watching don’t seem to care. After some silly bickering — and a ghastly recurring joke about her innerwear — Salman falls for her, but it isn’t as if she matters. There are too many characters, you see, to create and set-up and conveniently resolve, and mercifully a lot more screentime is given to the lady who plays Salman’s sister. Tabu’s still got it, and as evidenced by the seetis from my neighbours when she did a brief jig, she can still rock it hard.

The one thing that left me truly touched, however? The fact that Sohail Khan took forward that lament from Austin Powers, that “people never think how things affect the family of a henchman” and showed a goon who had been beaten up watching TV with his family and lamenting his actions. Its… It’s hard to make up, really.

As for Khan, there’s nothing new to see here. But that’s probably the point. For a man who’s pushing 50, he’s looking spry and seems to be having fun playing to type, though the absurd amounts of money his movies rake in obviously help. Having said that, my one and only laugh in Jai Ho came when Khan punched a car window and — in a film where he throws people through all manner of doors and walls and vehicles — explained himself saying he didn’t know it had been rolled up. Does he really want to be in on the joke now? Or maybe he already is.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, January 24, 2014 

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Review: David O Russell’s American Hustle

I feel like writing this review in slow-mo. In emphatically big hammer-thuds of the keyboard, shot beautifully and kinetically, while lurid but lovely songs play, on the nose with every changing paragraph and leaving nothing to subtlety. Ta-da ta-Da-da ta-da-da-DUM.

Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley CooperIt’s a party, this film. David O Russell has thrown together the familiar with tremendous flair, making for a loud, brassy blast of a movie. A movie where the killer ensemble cast unmistakably looks to be having a better time than the audience. Their buoyant energy — and the look-at-me style the movie is soaked in — comes at us hard and fast and it’s best to grin through it. It’s Scorsese with clown-shoes, Soderbergh slowed down and stretched out. (It’s a heh-heh Goodfellas, Ocean’s Twelve on a scratchy turntable.)

It all begins with a combover.

Irving, a velvet-suited slimeball, slack of jaw and chunky of gut, starts off American Hustle wordlessly as he — lovingly, and with masterful precision — positions and parts and pastes his hair into a very specific shape. His partner, and former mistress, Sydney — an eternally glamorous woman with a neckline that skims her navel — knows this, and says Irving “has a process,” which may well be the reason she’s not his mistress anymore. Earlier, when she’d first met and fallen for her paunchy man, she admired the self-assurance with which he let it all hang out. Now it’s hard not to look at everyone as a con; including Irving refusing to leave his wife.

Irving’s wife, now, is a real piece of work. Rosalyn, a highly unstable woman and a tremendously unfit mother, gives the film its weirdest and most wonderful scene where she sings and headbangs violently along to a recording of Live And Let Die while her kid watches, bewildered. And then there’s Richie, a self-serving FBI agent who catches Irving and Sydney in the act and, like a rookie gambler who’s just inhaled his first roulette scraps, wants to hold out for more and more. His plan? To use the con-artists to entrap politicians and mobsters. No matter what his hapless boss says.

In the middle of all these insane characters lies a nugget of truth. Fool’s gold, really. In the 1970s, there was the Abscam scandal where an FBI agent trapped politicians using con-artists. Russell borrows merely that concept — and the use of a sheikh who isn’t a sheikh — and concocts the rest of his wild world without restraint or apology. His film tells us upfront, with disarming honesty, that only “some of this actually happened”, and later keeps repeating that we believe only what we choose to.

americanhustle2The result is silly and very overdone but undeniably exciting, like a cocktail made by an undergrad to slug a girl. The actors drink liberally from the vial of excessiveness, never holding back and frequently exaggerating their parts not just to great comic effect but to, oddly enough, shove us some genuine poignance when we least expect it. Christian Bale leads the pack and is fluctuatingly electric as Irving, a character who won me over more wholly (and more unlikely) than any in Bale’s very varied gallery. Amy Adams, as his mistress Sydney, turns on the sexual heat and doesn’t un-purr until her intentionally bad English accent stops. Jennifer Lawrence plays the loony wife with absolutely immaculate comic timing, and lovely expressions. And Bradley Cooper –mad, mad Bradley Cooper — takes the weaselly FBI agent and imbues him with so much blasted enthusiasm that it’s hard not to hate him. Even when he’s wearing curlers. Louis CK shows up as the least intimidating boss in the world, and is more than contrasted by Robert De Niro turning on menace like only a Corleone could.

Russell, of course, is the real huckster here: selling us a con movie where the plot takes a backseat to the characters, where restraint is chucked away and acting often forsaken for massively entertaining grandstanding, all ham and cheese. It’s almost as over the top as Russell himself with his dynamically striking style. His camera moves in flamboyant swooshes, entering a roomful of characters as if it were an uppercut aimed at their chins. His characters have elaborately absurd hair and dress up like, well, like they’re all playing dress-up. And they are. But it’s because they’re such damned good actors that this sloppy hot dog of a film comes together. It’s not gourmet, but there’s enough goddamned relish for you not to care.

I only wish he’d finished the ice-fishing story.

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, January 17, 2014

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