What a fascinating contrast we have in the latest films from the Coen brothers and David Russell. Among the best films of the year, they ably present two sides of a uniquely American coin.
Set in February 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis follows one week in the life of the titular character, played by Oscar Isaacs. He is a folk singer at the epicenter of the music scene in Greenwich Village, New York. He is also a man with no fixed residence, no steady income, and few if any prospects. He couch-surfs and scrounges meals. He plays guitar, and he writes and sings his own songs. He may not have much materially, but that is of no consequence to him. He is an artist and he is proud; he will accept money for his art, but he will not perform like a trained seal. “Civilians” may believe that he is deceiving himself, that his “art” will never amount to anything, that he is wasting his youth.
Llewyn Davis begs to differ. And he is right, because when he sings, he puts his heart and soul and mind and body into the performance, and it is spellbinding. Granted, it’s not particularly catchy, but it is real and it is art and it is deeply affecting.
Set in the late 1970s, American Hustle follows a period of months in the lives of three characters who are all deceiving themselves. Unlike Llewyn Davis, what they are doing is not art, yet their criminal self-deceptions take on the sprawling appearance of artistic endeavors. None of them is particularly young, as is made abundantly clear when Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) takes off his shirt; he is paunchy and balding, a typical small businessman who has found success on the side with shady loan dealings. Beyond his looks, though, his personality is boundless in its charm; he may be slick, but his faux-sincerity seals the deal.
That’s what draws Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to him. They fall into a relationship that is based on their ability to deceive themselves and others; Irving is married to a young, needy wife (Jennifer Lawrence), while Sydney affects a British accent to feel good about herself. Their con game attracts the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who dragoons them into luring bigger fish into their criminal activities. Richie, too, imagines himself to be something that he is not, desperately striving upwards while curling his hair and living at home with his mother.
Both films feature wonderful ensembles. Inside Llewyn Davis makes good use of Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and more, while American Hustle is enlivened by the likes of Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, and Michael Pena. Both are marvelous evocations of their respective eras, Inside Llewyn Davis with its coffeehouses, monochromatic fashions, and pitch-perfect songs (“Please Mr. Kennedy” is the catchy pop-ish breakout), American Hustle with its rich variety of locatrions, loud and colorful fashions and hairstyle, and well-chosen pop songs (perhaps most appropriately, America’s “A Horse With No Name”).
Both films reflect the strengths of their respective directors: Inside Llewyn Davis is tight, fluid, restrained, and subtle; American Hustle is sprawling, messy, loose, and happy to call attention to itself. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote their original script, while David Russell rewrote Eric Singer’s screenplay, inspired by the true story of the Abscam scandal. (The original, more accurate title was American Bulls***.)
The filmmakers are well-matched with their material, and their teams are fully up to the task of realizing distinctive visions of America. And what a contrast we have! Inside Llewyn Davis takes place just a few weeks after President John F. Kennedy assumed office, signaling the dawn of a new era in the country. Llewyn is in the vanguard of his generation, even though he doesn’t know or care about such things; he is compelled to pursue and preserve the purity of his artistic vision.
American Hustle unfolds at the tail end of the “Me generation,” when the spirits of the country had been laid low with the energy crisis. Irving and Sydney are self-centered and materialistic, although Irving insists on keeping theit con-game targets within reason. (On the other hand, Richie is determined to make a name for himself and insists on targeting bigger and bigger targets.) Irving, and to a somewhat lesser extent Sydney, is compelled to pursue and preserve the purity of his financial vision.
Both Llewyn and Irving are seeking their own versions of the American dream, which helps make Inside Llewyn Davis and American Hustle irresistibly American films with fierce independent spirit.
Inside Llewyn Davis and American Hustle are now playing in theaters throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth.