Joyfilmposter-202x300.jpg

Joy

Posted on December 24, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015

Jennifer Lawrence is “Joy,” reuniting with her “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook” #squad, director David O. Russell and co-stars Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper. She plays real-life consumer products inventor and television sales mogul Joy Mangano, who lived something of a Cinderella story — if the fairy godmother was the QVC shopping channel.

The film is something of a mess. It never quite comes together, but some of the individual pieces are marvelous, especially the performances by Lawrence, radiant in her first adult lead (though she still seems too young to have those children), Virginia Madsen as Joy’s dotty mother, De Niro as her father, and Isabella Rossellini as his wealthy new girlfriend. Cooper has so much magnetism as a QVC executive that his tour of the network’s revolving studio provides one of the best moments. He is so good it misdirects us about where the movie is going and leaves us feeling vaguely cheated.

Russell, who so savagely took out after both consumer culture and at those who attack it for the most superficial reasons in the underrated “I Heart Huckabees,” cannot seem to settle into a point of view beyond the idea that the woman with the almost-too-on-the-nose name has the ingenuity and what used to be called moxie to overcome obstacles that include massive family dysfunction and business partners who bully and defraud her. It emphasizes her ability as an inventor and her determination but loses track of the storyline with confusing sequencing and superfluous narration. When a prospective funder asks her if she would be willing to pick up a (possibly metaphorical) gun to protect her invention, she says she would. And when she is turned down, she keeps coming back. But the primary factors in the success of her product are a chance connection and a much-too-convenient discovery of incriminating evidence. The most interesting elements of the story are abruptly glossed over (What? Who sued her?). And lovingly staged episodes from Joy’s mother’s favorite soap opera (starring real-life soap stars including Susan Lucci) are not nearly as entertaining or illuminating as they are intended to be.

Joy has monumental obstacles to overcome and Russell clearly considers her heroic, but there is a heightened gloss on the story that keeps us at a remove. A moment of particular triumph is truncated and artificial and the narration is clumsy and intrusive. “In America,” Cooper’s character tells us, “the ordinary meets the extraordinary every day.” But in this movie, that meeting is awkward, and the result is buyer’s remorse.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of family conflict and dysfunction, corrupt, thuggish, and fraudulent behavior, some sexual references, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Joy keep taking care of everyone in her family? What did Neil mean about staying friends? What invention would you like to create?

If you like this, try: “Erin Brockovich”

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Based on a true story Biography Family Issues

The Real Story: American Hustle and Abscam

Posted on December 20, 2013 at 8:00 am

“American Hustle” is based on the real-life Abscam scandal of the 1970’s.  While many details have been changed, some of the most improbable characters and events really did happen.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists who are caught by an FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper.  He gets them to cooperate with him to bring down some bigger fish and ends up unexpectedly snaring a senator and six members of Congress.

An excellent article on NJ.com tells the real story:

The elaborate sting ensnared seven members of Congress, including six in the House of Representatives and a veteran U.S. Senator, along with a powerful New Jersey state legislator, three Philadelphia councilmen and a number of high-level political operatives. Abscam involved phony, oil-rich Arab sheiks with suitcases full of cash, stolen artwork, payoffs for Atlantic City casino licenses and backroom influence peddling that generated worldwide headlines and set off political shockwaves for years thereafter.

The undercover probe, which came to light in February 1980, ultimately led to the convictions of Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.), Camden Democratic Mayor Angelo Errichetti, New Jersey Democratic Congressman Frank Thompson Jr., and other lawmakers, who were caught on secretly recorded surveillance video accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes.

It was a sting that still enrages defense attorneys who say it was based on crimes the government itself created. Sharply criticized by one federal district judge who accused the government of using “outrageous” tactics, the affair was flatly labeled a case of prosecutorial misconduct by a former U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

But it was an enterprise that rewrote the books for FBI undercover operations and led to more than a dozen criminal convictions and rejected appeals.

The character Bale plays is based on Mel Weinberg, who worked with FBI agents in setting up a fake company called Abdul Enterprises, Ltd. headed up by a fictitious Arab sheik.  (Abscam is a contraction of Abdul and scam.)  The plan was to get evidence on crooks and mobsters, and they did, as well as recovering some valuable stolen artwork.  But it ended up being a political corruption case when elected officials took bribes.  It became very controversial because, as one government lawyer said, it was “a scam within a scam,” and violated Justice Department guidelines for undercover operations, including paying Weinberg $150,000 for his role.

Here’s a real-life Abscam video:

For more information: The Sting Man: Inside Abscam and ABSCAM – The FBI Files

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The Real Story

American Hustle

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:00 pm

american-hustle

“Some of this actually happened,” the movie’s opening shot deadpans.  It is true that the United States government both threatened and paid a con man to help them con some bigger fish and then accidentally ended up conning some of the biggest fish ever caught — six US Congressmen and a Senator.  David O. Russell directed and co-wrote “American Hustle,” the story of 1970’s fraud, insanity, and betrayal, plus a lot of “what were we thinking” hair and clothes and a rockin’ soundtrack, from “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” to “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” and the inevitable “Horse With No Name.”

The storyline has so many layers of double-cross, lies, betrayal, grandiosity, and sheer insanity that the audience may feel they are getting lost, but in a way, that is the point, and of course, that is the decade for it.  I mean, look at the home perm on Bradley Cooper, who plays the hotdog FBI agent Ricky DiMaso as something of a cross between Starsky, Hutch, and Huggie Bear.

And then there is the hair on Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld.  It can perhaps best be described as an edifice.  As the movie begins, we are treated to the painstaking assembly of his pompadoured comb-over, remarkable to witness and a dead-on detail that lets us know who we will be following for the rest of the film.  He is a phony, he is all about making the surface look better than it should, and  he will do whatever it takes to put forward the image that will sell whatever he is trying to sell. Ascot, check.  Pinky rink, check. Briefcase full of cash, check.

Flashback.  Rosenfeld is the master of at least half a dozen medium-sized scams when, at a party, across the room, he spies a beautiful woman.  It is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).  They share a love of Duke Ellington and a talent for re-invention.  “My dream” she tells us, “more than anything, was to become anything else than what I was.”

They cook up an almost-legal scam, taking  up-front fees on the promise of using their connections to obtain loans from some vaguely defined “London connections.”  All is fine until they get busted.  And DiMaso, intrigued by their world of deception, persuades them to work for him to bring down some big-time criminals.

But things get complicated and messy.  DiMaso’s boss (a terrific Louis C.K.)  is reluctant to have federal officers engage in criminal activities, even to catch other criminals.  One of the great joys of this film is when the boss keeps trying to tell DiMaso an ice-fishing story that never gets to the point because the hotheaded DiMaso keeps interrupting him.  Rosenfeld is married to an unhappy, volatile wife named Rosalyn (a dazzling performance of astonishing depth and mesmerizing assurance by Jennifer Lawrence) and stepfather to her son.  He has to find a way to resolve things with the FBI, the mob, and the politicians.

The unfinished ice-fishing story is the point.  This is not a nice, linear explanation for what happened.  This is a bunch of stories that intersect in a maze of all seven of the deadly sins plus a few that should also be on the list.  Brilliant performances by everyone in the cast (including Alessandro Nivola as an FBI official and an unbilled guest star as a guy from the mob) and a witty, insightful script are what hold it together.  Lawrence makes us furious at and sorry for her character at the same time, and she is sizzlingly funny.

The purpose of this film is not to illuminate the particular events of Abscam.  It is to meditate on the irrepressible American enthusiasm for self-invention and the thicket of betrayal and damage that can be the result.  It is about the stories we tell, even the ones like the ice fishing story that never get to make a point.  Russell himself can’t resist tweaking the details, making the characters more interesting and sympathetic than they really were.  But that wouldn’t be a good story.

Parents should know that this film has very strong adult material including constant bad language, explicit sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking and drug use, extensive criminal behavior and betrayal.

Family discussion: Who are the biggest con artists in this story?  How do the characters determine who deserves their loyalty?  Was justice done?

If you like this, try:  “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Fighter,” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” from the same director

 

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