“American Hustle” and “The To-Do List”

“American Hustle” (David O. Russell, 2013)
Let’s count the ways in which this movie could have failed. One: It fictionalizes an insane real-life story, the “AbScam” sting in which FBI agents bribed members of Congress and the mayor of Camden, and removes the fascinating question of whether the intelligence community was striking back after a decade of investigations from Washington. Two: It casts waspish Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Christian Bale as, respectively, loudmouthed Italians and a loudmouthed Jewish con man. Three: Under its old title, “American Bullshit,” it was considered messily un-filmable for years. And as good as this movie ends up being, you can see the seams, and feel yourself drifting during some moments before the plot gets truly gonzo.

But everything else works — even the casting works. Russell has juggled the casts of his last two films (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter”) and set them against each other. It opens on the first phase of AbScam, as Bale’s con man Irving, his accomplice Sydney (Amy Adams, who I hope doesn’t give a boring Oscar speech), and the FBI agent (Cooper) are attempting to bribe the mayor of Camden (Renner) on video. The agent, Richie DiMaso, screws it up by being over-eager; Irving runs out of the room to fix things.

Roll: A voiceover and flashback that completely evokes the start of “Goodfellas.” (It was a good idea to begin the movie with a flash-forward, to avoid just cloning Scorcese’s masterpiece.) Irving and Sydney meet at a pool party, bond over their love of Duke Ellington, and quickly expand his nascent loan-scam business. When DiMaso shows up in the office, we know he’s about to collar them, and he does after handing a check to Sydney. In a perfect scene, a mannered, puffed-up DiMaso confronts Sydney in her prison cell (“Why’s there no bed in here? I asked for one. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I wanted you to be uncomfortable. I’m a wild card like that.”) and tries to convince her that Irving let her take the fall. Separately, he talks Irving into working with the FBI — get them four arrests, and his own case vanishes.

The two con artists go with the plan, seemingly revealing everything they feel about each other in a late-night argument, then agreeing to do the FBI’s con while trying to con the FBI. Irving guides Richie through the AbScam plan. Richie wants to play it on New Jersey politicians who are desperate to bring capital to Atlantic City. (The New Jersey angle is accurate, though all the names are changed.) Everything escalates from there — Richie becoming more arrogant and violent without learning any competence, Sydney manipulating one (or both) of the paramours, Irving becoming a nervous wreck who keeps dramatically collapsing and sucking down heart medicine. The mayor of Camden, whom we’re meant to like from the second he’s introduced, gets exploited by the Venn Diagram desperation of the criminals and the ambitious agent.

It’s thrilling, most of the time. The “hustle” is the sting itself, but also the strangely all-American way that Irving and Sydney have thrived on scamming people. That’s the definition of “hustle” that the historian John McDougall uses, non-pejoratively, to praise the industry of America’s earlier settlers, killers, and businessmen. Russell has taken a story remembered as the downfall of a few greedy congressmen and made it about how the surveillance state and the shadow economy exploit otherwise decent people. I can’t recall a movie in which the mafia comes off better or wiser. I think that’s on purpose. When Richie tells Irving that an America run by people like him, con men, would be a banana republic, Irving barks that it’s really the FBI goons ruining the country. “We get over Watergate and you want to bring down a bunch of politicians!” Bullshit, but like every character in the movie seems to say: You believe what you want to believe.

“The To-Do List” (Maggie Carey, 2013)
Sometimes a book or movie or lover’s poem falls way, way short of the mark, but you can’t bring yourself to criticize it. The intentions were good. We’d rather live in a system where someone tried then one where they couldn’t. This is my pretentious way of saying I’m glad Maggie Carey got funding and a great cast to put together a sex-positive feminist teen comedy, but disappointed at how lame it is.

Aubrey Plaza, a 29-year old actress who has merged sullenness and cuteness in ways no behavioral scientist could have imagined, plays Brandy, who we know is a virgin because someone yells “virgin” at her valedictorian speech. Brandy’s en route to Georgetown (I’m disappointed that they didn’t go with the “Risky Business” reference and send her to Princeton), but she’s hopelessly awkward. The first time she gets drunk (on Apple Pucker), she accidentally starts hooking up with mansculpted hunk Rusty Watters (Scott Porter), but he realizes he’s found the wrong girl in the wrong dark room and leaves her. The lesson Brandy takes from this is that she needs more sexual experience. Why? Because the movie is called “The To-Do List.”

Brandy’s experimentation is a complete success, and the movie ends after she and a group of nerdy boys (Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have learned plenty about hooking up. No one is exploited, least of all Brandy. Teens screw around. That’s okay. Some of them are lousy at sex. That’s okay, too. There’s almost none of the shaming that defined “Easy A,” which was actually a much funnier movie — oh, and that’s where the problems start. Carey’s written a lesson into a pastiche of teen comedy tropes and 90s references.

Other critics (by which I mean actual critics, who don’t just write on their blogs while procrastinating on longer assignments) have puzzled at the amount of 90s references that stud this movie. I get why the movie is set in 1993, because cell phones have completely changed the relationships teens have with each other, the ease of hook-ups, the ease of making or breaking plans. In 2013 (or 2003) a girl confused about sex could spend a night clicking through porn sites: Education complete.

But too often, “hey, it’s the 90s!” is the only joke on screen. One character gets paged, on a pager! Brandy has lots of pictures of Hillary Clinton! Her dad reads Rush Limbaugh’s book! Someone apologizes for not answering an “electronic mail!” And so on, like a Buzzfeed listicle come to celluloid life. The beats of the plot that aren’t about sex are often borrowed from successful 80s comedies, down to a “poop in the pool” joke. Giving Brandy and most of the supporting cast summer jobs at a pool made the trope-ing too easy. It’s a cute story, but simply not funny enough to support its length.