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Humor, locked and loaded

Jason Zinoman, New York Times News Service   | January 28, 2014 15:44 IST (New York)
Oscar

A still from American Hustle

Is this the year the Academy Awards finally gave comedy some respect?

Is this the year the Academy Awards finally gave comedy some respect?

Don't make me laugh. The Oscars carried on its tradition of slighting the genre in the best picture category.

But the secret for a comedy to get nominated may be to look like a drama. While American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street have the kind of grandiose titles, A-list actors and based-on-a-true-story subject matter associated with prestige dramas, they are, at their best, flamboyantly savage comedies.

Raucous movies about scheming con artists, they showcase broad jokes (toupees get yanked in both movies) but also anarchic comic flourishes that are the opposite of comic relief. They generate tension, revealing aggression you could not play straight. While laughter is said to be the best medicine, in these movies, it looks like symptoms of a disease.

In American Hustle, Amy Adams' cackle inside a bathroom stall of Studio 54 has the desperate force of a primal scream. Her rival, played by Jennifer Lawrence, has the chuckle of a psychopath with a head full of chaos. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the paroxysms of gaping-mouthed brokers are bullying expressions of power.

The comedy in these movies is no light detour. It is a key to the self-conscious, the ugly essence of what's really going on. Martin Scorsese - whose artistic fingerprints are on both, even if he only directed Wolf (David O Russell directed Hustle) - has always been sensitive to the hostility of comedy. When Joe Pesci's character erupted in Goodfellas ("I'm funny how, I mean, funny like a clown?"), what is often forgotten is that he was kidding - well, sort of.

In Wolf, Jonah Hill plays a nasty coked-up stockbroker, Donnie Azoff, who specializes in this same kind of fake-out joke. The movie is full of ordinary, even common pranks that are rife with unexamined humiliations: swallowing someone's goldfish, shaving off hair for money. These establish a culture of brutality and callousness.

Much of the humor is rooted in the incongruity between the real world and how its title character, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), sees it. After lingering on his march through a Las Vegas hotel room strewn with drugs and hookers, he waxes poetic about his wedding the next day - "like something out of a fairy tale."

Belfort dupes people for a living, but here he is also the fool - never more so than in an inspired 10-minute scene where he takes a handful of quaaludes with Azoff, reducing Belfort to a primitive state. His face is contorted, he is drooling, his legs have grown so limp that crossing the street he looks like a fish trying to walk.

After mulling his options, Belfort (whose thoughts we hear in voice-over) says he will try to imitate his baby daughter Skylar and crawl, which he does feebly. "That kid makes it look so easy," he says, bitterly.

But there is still more to come: When he reaches the car, DiCaprio flails his body in a circle, opening the door with his foot, failing to get on the seat. This feat of elaborate physical comedy, more than any other, is why DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for best performance in a comedy. In The King of Comedy, Scorsese teased a dramatic performance of gravitas out of Jerry Lewis. But here he pulled off a more unlikely achievement: transforming DiCaprio into Jerry Lewis.

As the comedy builds, Belfort appears to devolve slowly. Once he drives home and opens the door and sees his friend is also unable to talk, they grunt at each other like preverbal beasts. It is pure, delirious silliness that ends with Belfort beating his chest in pride like an ape. It is a victory, but a pointless, dumb one - and when Scorsese reruns the scene from a more objective point of view, showing us what really happened, the achievement becomes more unsettling.

American Hustle generally maintains a gentler comic tone, albeit one with a sexually charged snap. As Manohla Dargis argued in her review in The New York Times, the well-balanced triangle at its center helps makes this "pure Scorsese screwball."

Considering the dizzying number of romantic entanglements, it threatens to tip over into sex farce. This well-made entertainment benefits from two formidable comedic forces that jolted the film off its axis. The first is a performance of wonderfully calculated madness by Lawrence as Rosalyn, a con man's wife.

Rosalyn, whom she plays with live-wire energy, is stuck at home, while her husband carries on an affair, but she is no victim. She is resourceful, frighteningly so, willing to do anything, and then, hilariously, rationalize everything.

The other outsize performance is by Louis C K, who plays Stoddard Thorsen, a put-upon FBI boss. Thorsen keeps saying no to the expensive requests of the swaggering detective, Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, who is working on a sting. In most cop movies, Thorsen would be the misguided bureaucrat whose by-the-book attitude gets in the way of justice. But in this world of recklessly ambitious risk-takers, he is a sad-sack loser who doubles as unlikely moral conscience - the adult in the room.

Louis C.K. is perfectly cast, since you could argue that he plays that role in comedy today. Russell wisely turns the minor subplot of Thorsen refusing DiMaso into a ridiculous comic story within the story. DiMaso pleads with him, goes over Thorsen's head and even physically assaults him to get what he wants. Thorsen responds by trying to tell a cautionary tale about ice fishing with his father.

Problem is, in scene after scene, Cooper keeps interrupting to guess the point. It works as a joke about his character's impatience, as well as a satire of the kind of snap critical readings that any artist these days knows well. But the key to the joke is in Louis C.K.'s exasperated face.

Defining comedy can seem to be like hitting a moving target, since its conventions and characteristics can change. Aristotle, one of the first to try, argued that comedy's aim is representing people as worse than they are in real life, but how many would describe it that way today? As the reigning stand-up king, Louis C K has, more recently, expanded the contours of comedy in the public mind, particularly since his television show, Louie, not only strikes notes of melancholy and the surreal but also goes long stretches without a laugh.

That his character (spoiler!) in American Hustle never finishes his story, that there is no resolution, adds an enigmatic element to a movie that otherwise wraps plot lines up tidily.

In an appearance on The Tonight Show, Louis C.K. explained how the story was supposed to end: with a gag involving excrement sinking through the ice. Oddly enough, cutting the punch line made American Hustle seem even more like a contemporary comedy than it already is.
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