Power couple

March 21st, 2014

“True Detective” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Form and Void”

March 18th, 2014

Just realized I never linked to my review of the True Detective season finale. Fittingly it was a mix of “gripping” and “a mess,” like the whole season.

Your Grand Unified “True Detective” Theory Is Missing the Goddamn Point

March 7th, 2014

My own wild speculation is that clue-hunting and twist-anticipating entered the hive mind via cinemas in 1999 with the one-two twist-ending punch of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. Sure, The Crying Game was still a recent memory, but not for the fanboys who flocked to Shyamalan and Fincher’s films and whose tastes were about to become post-millennial mainstream culture’s bread and butter. On the small screen, the phenomenon had its precursors — “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, The X-Files’ sprawling and eventually suffocating mythology — but the blame-slash-credit must be laid at the four-toed feet of Lost. Fueled by decades of pulp-fiction tropes and pop-philosophy mindbenders, structured as a Russian nesting doll of mysteries within mysteries, and riddled with more Easter eggs than the White House lawn, ABC’s sci-fi smash knowingly worked fans into a frenzy of message-board theory-mongering. Turns out it was more or less a shaggy dog story the creators were making up as they went along, but this didn’t stop viewers from applying this mode of audience speculation-cum-participation to virtually every big series since.

Which is fair play, when the show in question invites it. For example, Lost’s big nerd-culture contemporary, the cult-classic critics’ darling Battlestar Galactica reboot, teased its big mysteries in the opening-credit text of every episode, and thus had nothing but itself to blame when viewers gave the whole series a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on those mysteries’ solutions. But even relatively realistic shows, based not around unraveling enigmas but on studying the complexities of human relationships, are now treated like glorified Sudoku puzzles by vocal viewers. The Sopranos’ David Chase worked overtime to design a series finale that would actively defy this kind of clue-hunting closure, but that didn’t stop a host of amateur sleuths out to close the book on that infamously open ending. More recently, the ostensibly sophisticated audience of Mad Men treats everything from promo art to costume choices the way medieval soothsayers treated goat entrails. In this light, the decision of Game of Thrones to largely drop its epic-fantasy source material’s host of cryptic prophecies and hidden truths (google “R+L=J” if you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes) in favor of character work and realpolitik seems like the smartest act of adaptation since Francis Ford Coppola dropped Johnny Fontane as a main character in The Godfather.

Over at Esquire, I wrote a piece on the fan fervor for theory-mongering that surrounds True Detective which wound up being kind of an historical overview of the practice’s slow takeover of pop culture. It was fun to do — and commissioned by a loyal All Leather Must Be Boiled reader! See kids, tumblr dreams come true!

Six Oscar Upsets to Watch Out For

March 2nd, 2014

I did a thing on potential Oscar upsets for Rolling Stone. Some are bona fide upsets, some would just be upsetting.

“They’re real men.”

March 2nd, 2014

Where do you think Cohle and Hart fit within the world of HBO’s antiheroes?

I don’t think either of these guys are antiheroes. I see that term used a lot in the media but I don’t think they know what they means. Tony Soprano wasn’t an antihero, he was just a very bad man. He’s just somebody you’re fascinated with watching. I think both of these men are straight up heroes — they’re flawed men but they’re not corrupt. They’re kind of throwbacks, for better or worse, to a different kind of masculinity. They’re real men.

True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto


Godzilla trailer thoughts

February 26th, 2014

1. I posted about this on my A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, and even before I made the connection with ASoIaF about ten seconds before I did so, I was thinking today about how Godzilla is presented here the way I like dragons to be presented in stories — as a total upending of all human endeavor.

2. It’s just such a pleasure to hear and see Bryan Cranston again, particularly since the Breaking Bad finale left a bad taste in my mouth. That’s not his fault — he’s a magnificent actor. Listen to how his voice is constantly breaking and being repaired, like, as an ongoing process effected through force of will. Watch how his eyes shift back and forth at the end of that opening speech, as though he’s so consumed by what he’s saying he can’t really decide how, or if, to focus it.

3. This is the kind of tonal commitment I like to see in genre work, provided it doesn’t devolve into self-seriousness. And I’ll admit, that line is thin, and subjectively drawn. But playing Godzilla as a horror movie, which it originally was, seems as valid a place as any to take the assumptions of the genre work in question and hit hard with them.

12 Times Oscar Got It Right

February 26th, 2014

I wrote an article about this very thing for Rolling Stone. I got to compare Brandon in The Godfather to James Brown inventing funk and God parting form from void, so that was fun.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Eight

February 24th, 2014

* There’s something very odd about Downton‘s Christmas-special storytelling model of whisking us off to a different location and surrounding us with new characters who will be a big deal now but, as best I can tell, never again. They did it last year with Lord Shrimpy and the Highlands, and they did it this year with Prince Edward and London (and, I suppose, Harold Levinson). It felt weirder this year, though, because without the narrative atom bomb of the male lead’s death, there’s really nothing tying this episode back to the main narrative. There’s a caper that’s successful but which in historical terms is futile, there’s a trip to the beach, and there’s Paul Giamatti. The end!

* What’s more, there’s very little resolution in the offing for that main narrative. No indication of where Mary’s headed with her suitors. Nothing firm on Tom and his political teacher person. (And obviously not a scrap tossed to the Mary/Tom shippers.) No revelation regarding Thomas’s hold on Baxter. Nothing on the final fate of Michael Gregson, beyond the news that he was waylaid by Nazis (!). Bates skates on executing Green, apparently. Even the sudden, and frankly delightful, autumn-years shipping of Isobel & Lord Merton and Carson & Mrs. Hughes (!!!!!!! serving Roslin & Adama realness!) is more gestural than actual.

* It was nice to see the banker from Sexy Beast put the moves on Shirley MacLaine, though.

* Some conversation or other that Mary had with someone about how hard it can be to make relationships work even when everyone around you is pulling for them made me realize the elegance of having everyone try to get Mary and Matthew together all those years. They weren’t starcrossed at all, except perhaps at the very start. That’s a really unique and almost perverse way to construct an obstacle for your romantic pairing to overcome — it’s too perfect, everyone wants it, and the weight of that is crushing to you.

* “Your strength has made me strong.” “My what?” And so after much adversity, Molesley comes out on top, having survived his fall from the top while still being, I dunno, basically decent and trying to put one foot in front of the other. I suppose that would be inspiring to someone like Baxter, who finds herself in the thrall of creepazoid Thomas apparently because she gave up trying to take all those little steps and was content to just drift along behind him.

* That’s the most consistent ethos of this show, in the end, quite aside from however you feel about however Julian Fellowes feels about the aristocracy or the class system: It celebrates the performance of difficult emotional work. Listen to Mary talk to Tony about grieving and moving on: “A year ago, I thought I’d be alone for ever — that I would mourn Matthew to the end of my days. Now I know that isn’t true, that there will be a new life for me, one day. And even if I can’t decide yet what life that should be, isn’t it something for us to celebrate?” A lot of people, a lot of shows, would say no, slow your roll Lady Mary. Mad Men is the best show on television and it’s all about how people are goal-oriented, routinely crushed by their failure to meet those goals, and often induced into bad behavior to get there by any means necessary. There’s no room on that show for a young widow to take stock of her situation and say “I miss my husband, it’s hard being a parent without him, two dudes are into me and I don’t know how I feel about either of them, I’m presiding over the methodical rearrangement of my family’s entire way of life, I am in many ways way way out at sea, but I feel better than I did, I feel like there’s a future for me, I worked at getting here, and I’m going to enjoy that feeling.”

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Seven

February 23rd, 2014

* “Work’s like old age, milady: the worst thing in the world, except for the alternative.” Farmer Drewe succumbs to Downton Abbey‘s epigram epidemic.

* “It’s only me.” “I always feel that greeting betrays such a lack of self worth.” Shipping the Dowager and Isobel so hard!

* Was it me or did the Dowager more or less flee the babies?

* Anna tells Lady Mary the secret. Jeez, Anna. Surely you know what will happen.

* I’ve never heard anyone compared to “a sloth underwater” before.

* “Blimey! He puts a lot in a latter, does Alfred.” Can he cram in an explanation of why there was a storyline about him?

* “They’re sweet on each other, but it’s not as simple as that, is it. Then there’s Mr. Blake…” “I thought she didn’t like him.” “She didn’t, at first.” Anna and Bates taking the temperature of the vagaries of the human heart.

* “What’s the matter?” “I was thinking about a couple of people who are in a situation which will cause trouble.” “Will it make them unhappy?” “It’s hard to say. It’ll make some people unhappy.” Isobel asks the right question, there, and an unusual one. That’s the virtue of this show.

* Molesley and Baxter, sittin’ in a tree.

* “Won’t you defend your principles?” “No, not now.” Discretion is the better part of Branson.

* “Why ask the question when the decision has been made?” Another good question, thanks, Rosamund!

* “Well, I heard you had an interesting day. Whether or not it was tiring, you’d know better than I.” Worldly, fuck-wise Lady Mary wonders who’s been watering Cousin Rose!

* “If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts.” We all know that person.

* Actually this is a very strong Dowager episode. “If I told you the truth, Granny, you’d never speak to me again.” “Then you have told me the truth. But I’d like to hear it enunciated more clearly.” And then, “I’m a feeble substitute for the entire Crawley family.” “Mmm, yes. But you’re better than nothing.” Lady Violet’s increasingly a creature out of time, her clothing like a time capsule that emits disses at regular intervals.

* “I don’t believe in types. I believe in people.” Tom Branson gives voice to Downton Abbey‘s soul. The rejoinder — very convenient when you’re the people on top! — is obvious.

* “I probably should have stopped it sooner, but at any rate…I’m stopping it now.” The sigh thrown in there is the first moment that Jack Ross felt like a real person instead of some very weird, like, Disney World performer. So this is the out Downton gives itself for its “no way, not even on Downton” interracial relationship — Rose’s rebelliousness and Jack’s inherent decency. Yeah, alright, I guess. I can’t help but feel that if this is the best Fellowes could do, he shouldn’t have done it in the first place.

* Tony’s intransigence walks that fine line between clever and stupid, or as Mary puts it, “I find that both irritating and beguiling in equal measure.” His puppy-dog Byron looks become him, as does that unutterably romantic kiss earlier in the season, though Mary and Blake obviously have the Sam and Diane thing going. I take it this love triangle, the genteel past vs. the rough-edged future, is meant to be the equal of a potential Mary/Tom matchup? I’m a skeptic.

* I have no idea why Robert and Tom needed to go to America at all, really — shooting schedules for the actors — but at least we got a nice romantic kiss for Robert and Cora at the end. They don’t get enough of that.

* “My dear, all life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. First one, then the next, then the next, till at last we die. Why don’t you get us an ice cream?” Huh, maybe this is the soul of Downton.

* “He’s the most unconvincing fiancé I’ve ever come across.” That may have been Violet’s best line tonight, and that’s saying something.

* Green’s dead. Not a big surprise.

* “Friends forever.” Well, I didn’t think they’d do it, but the Daisy/Ivy/Alfred storyline has redeemed itself with this denouement, a detailed and touching argument in favor of treating people with whom you’ve had very high-stakes emotional struggles with decency and respect. How about that! “If you were my own daughter, I couldn’t be prouder than I am now.” Even a Mrs. Patmore beat gets thrown in for good measure! <3

* "What sort of menage has that turned into while I've been away?" And a line of ladies looks on. Maybe that’s the soul of Downton.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Six

February 23rd, 2014

Couple weeks late on this. Apologies, my lord.

* I enjoy when Robert and Cora mildly disagree. “I suppose we’ve made our decision.” If the aristocracy has always been this genially ineffectual how does it even exist?

* “I know plenty of relatives of English earls who belong in gaol.” You becha, Bob!

* Mrs. Hughes asks her not to send Bates to America, and suddenly Lady Mary gets stroppy about the servants not serving enough! I guess not everyone‘s genially ineffectual.

* “All those handsome stewards strutting down the boat deck.” “Don’t be vulgar. What do you know of such matters?” “I’ve been married. I know everything.” Worldly, fuck-wise Lady Mary is the best Lady Mary.

* Uh-oh, the Dowager’s got a cough. Cue near-death storyline!

* Even though his potential face-turn was abandoned immediately upon the start of the season, Thomas still has his good points, and his friendship with Jimmy, odious though Jimmy himself may be, is one of them. Watching them pal around is…nice…I guess?

* Poor Evelyn Napier, always the suit, never the suitor.

* At least Anna’s realized there’s no such thing as a secret at Downton.

* The Dowager refers to Isobel’s verbosity by likening her to “a drunken vicar.” Her conversational anticlericalism is a hoot.

* “Vive le difference!” Oh brother. Cousin Rose…there’s just nothin’ there.

* “But first, kiss me. Or don’t you want to?” “Oh, I want to. Don’t you worry about that.” Now that’s what I’m talking about! Rose may be kind of a cipher and Jack Ross is one of the most weirdly acted characters on a big show ever, but that’s a fabulously romantic exchange. A few more of those and there may be something to this.

* “Have you met my niece and her charming bastard?” Edith has learned the limits of the gentility’s gentility.

* “I’m killing the wanted child of the man I’m in love with and you ask if I’ve thought about?” We can, and should, take issue with Downton‘s handling of reproductive rights, but this line is a headshot on the well-meaning paternalism of the anti-choice movement.

* Keep saying “the pigman,” Downton.

* Branson meets cute with a political woman. I’m starting to worry that the show placing the shipping of Tom and Mary at the center of its entire architecture is a fake-out!

* Oh shit, Lady Mary getting muddy, hair down, goodness gracious great balls of fire.

* Yeah, a pretty grim take on abortion indeed. Don’t be a crying lady! Keep that baby!

* “The tears and the heartbreaks that’ll flavor my puddings for weeks to come.” If it taste’s good then at least some good has come of the Ivy/Daisy/Jimmy/Alfred storyline!

* I ship Mrs. Crawley and the Dowager.

* “You’ll be rewarded in heaven.” “The sooner, the better.”

* Lady Mary’s suitor can’t stay away. “Sounds to me as if the needle’s got stuck.”

* Wow, that was some look Bates shot Mr. Green. There’s the menace everyone supposedly sees in Bates all the time.

Q&A: Darren Aronofsky on “Noah”

February 12th, 2014

I interviewed director Darren Aronofsky about his upcoming Biblical epic Noah, which is set in a timeless non-Biblical fantasy world, interestingly. Key concepts: “this isn’t your grandmother’s Bible,” giant monsters, theodicy, Patti Smith writing a lullaby for Russell Crowe to sing to Emma Watson and recording it with the Kronos Quartet and Clint Mansell.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Five

February 3rd, 2014

* The first “complicated feeling, elegantly expressed” of the evening comes in the exchange between Tom and Robert about pig farming on the estate: “I thought you were convinced.” “I am, but I’m allowed to be nervous.” Lotta shows out there with life-or-death stakes all the time that don’t have time for all the emotional work each of us does day in and day out.

* Edith’s storyline managed to be both supremely unsurprising — pregnancy as predicted! — and take a turn I didn’t see coming — Gregson’s not just avoiding her (from what I assumed were eventually going to prove to reasons that had nothing to do with “you put out so now I’m out of here”), he’s disappeared entirely and no one can find him. So it’s not that the show doesn’t do life-or-death stakes, or handle the latter well when it comes to that, just that it makes room for other things too. I thought Laura Carmichael handled it all very well fwiw, combining her usual “nobody loves me everybody hates me now I’m gonna eat some worms” demeanor and her recent coming-out-of-her-shell-somewhat demeanor and an “oh my god what the hell is happening” panic.

* Angry Isobel rules, basically. “I’m not your lady– oh, nevermind.” “Things! Things! Things!” It’s occasionally fun to see her come up short against the Dowager, who of course is right to say Isobel is fueled by indignation, but it’s more fun to see her as her own person, I think. Her sense of indignation coexists with her decency and kindness, and her awareness of how her own limitations impede other people. This episode showed her emerging from the mist, as Robert said, but that involved reaching out to Mary and Tom as much as it did whiteknighting for the gardener kid over the purloined letter-opener.

* “It’s a wonder you don’t burn the Abbey down and dance around it, painted with woad and howling.” Okay, that’s pretty great, I admit.

* “How you hate to be wrong.” “I wouldn’t know. I’m not familiar with the sensation.” That too, even though it’s easy and moreover a remix of something she said already a couple seasons ago.

* “You’re nervous because you’re intelligent, Alfred. Only stupid people are foolhardy.” This is a cool line and a solid aphorism and a nice defense of Alfred against dumb handsome Jimmy (even if Alfred’s a stiff and the servants’-quarters love quadrangle has been the show’s least interesting story for a full season now). But more than that, perhaps it’s also a window into Carson’s traditionalism. Change, modernity, the future, these things make him nervous because it would be stupid to be foolhardy about them, so he thinks. Right?

* Hahaha anyone who thinks Julian Fellowes is entirely forgiving of the aristocracy should note the obvious discomfort and condescension with which they greet Alfred’s unsolicited display of emotion about Carson. Like they just saw a dog they think is super-cute piddle in the corner.

* “Ooh I like that Valentino. He makes me shiver all over.” “What a very disturbing thought.” Only stupid people are foolhardy, Carson.

* Thomas and his spy Baxter — what to think, what to think. He obviously has something on her, or perhaps on a male relative. That’s the best I can come up with. This seems like Thomas’s undoing in the making at last, sad to say.

* “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” “That gives you a bit o’ leeway.” Mrs. Patmore with the layup.

* It’s very rare for Lady Cora to get a decent zinger — she is a very odd character in the context of this show in that way — but when she ostentatious meets’n'greets the Bateses at the restaurant, shaming the maitre d’ into seating them, she had a good one: “That seems to have made a difference. Thank God he’s a snob!”

* He’s also the wine merchant who tried to poison Daenerys Targaryen. A nogoodnik through and through!

* Also, was her joke about the maitre d’ killing himself a Python reference? She gets meta with a Ragtime reference later in the episode, so….

* “I’m not a victim. That’s not who I am. The worst part is that you see me as a victim.” No no, Bates assures her, he doesn’t see her as victim, instead he sees her as a helpless person he should have protected. The wages of the patriarchy is misery even for the loving and well-intentioned.

* Jimmy and Ivy…I don’t know. Not for the last time in this episode will a storyline be short-circuited to an extent because a female character with a botanical moniker has never really cohered into an actual person.

* Anyone else hoping for a Molesley/Carson fistfight when all is said and done?

* The Mary/Blake Sam/Diane thing… I don’t know about that, either. Won’t poor Evelyn Napier ever get his day in court? Is he always to be passed over for dashing if fragile Turks and minions of Lloyd George?

* “I’m not unhappy. I’m just not quite ready to be happy.” Good Lord, the scene in the nursery with Mary, Tom, and Isobel is one of my favorite scenes in the history of this show — gentle, sad, genuinely both bitter and sweet. “Well. Aren’t we the lucky ones!” I gasped “Jeeeeesus” when Isobel said that. The power of that choice, that decision to see it that way — the amount of emotional labor required, and the rewards of it. And then the kids come in. Remarkable work.

* “My people came over in the 1790s. We won’t go into why or how.” Haha you’re alright, Jack Ross, you’re alright. Actually, Ross is quite interesting, insofar as unlike basically every other character introduced to make the Crawleys uncomfortable with the changing world, the issues at play here are still very much a part of our day-to-day lives in a way we all recognize. (Class is also still an issue but it takes a different form than the English aristocracy, obviously. Racism’s just racism.) Indeed Downton is either asking us to show enormous forbearance or level pretty harsh condemnation on the various members of the family who’ve shown discomfort with Ross’s presence, depending on how generous you want to be to Fellowes.

* The problem, honestly, is Rose, who’s still not a person we know anything about. She’s a plot device, and a set of adjectives: young, vibrant, rebellious, naive. This isn’t Tom and Sybil, though that’s its obvious and intended antecedent. For one thing I don’t think we’re to believe Rose and Jack are in love, just that they’re fun sexy young people who enjoy each other.

* Insert joke referencing the Dowager’s remonstrance to Edith that she should let her time in London “rub off” on her here.

Hellboy/BPRD/Mignolaverse Reading Order

January 29th, 2014

Every once in a while I like to put together a list of all of Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and company’s Hellboy/B.P.R.D./Abe Sapien/Lobster Johnson/Witchfinder/etc. trade paperbacks in the order one should read them. Generally that means “in the order they came out,” though there’s the occasional exception (eg. the most recent Abe Sapien trade came out before the most recent BPRD: Hell on Earth trade but should be read after it). Here’s what I’ve got at the moment.

1. Hellboy: Seed of Destruction
2. Hellboy: Wake the Devil
3. Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others
4. Hellboy: The Right HAnd of Doom
5. Hellboy: Conqueror Worm
6. BPRD: Hollow Earth & Other Stories
7. Hellboy: Weird Tales Vol. 1
8. BPRD: The Soul of Venice & Other Stories
9. Hellboy: Weird Tales. Vol. 2
10. BPRD: Plague of Frogs
11. BPRD: The Dead
12. Hellboy: Strange Places
13. BPRD: The Black Flame
14. BPRD: The Universal Machine
15. Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others
16. BPRD: Garden of Souls
17. BPRD: Killing Ground
18. Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus
19. Hellboy: Darkness Calls
20. Abe Sapien: The Drowning
21. BPRD: 1946
22. BPRD: The Warning
23. BPRD: The Black Goddess
24. Hellboy: The Wild Hunt
25. Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels
26. BPRD: War on Frogs
27. Hellboy: The Crooked Man and Others
28. BPRD: 1947
29. BPRD: King of Fear
30. BPRD: Hell on Earth: New World
31. Hellboy: The Bride of Hell and Others
[31.5 Hellboy: House of the Living Dead]
32. BPRD: Being Human
33. Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever
34. BPRD: Hell on Earth: Gods and Monsters
35. Hellboy: The Storm and the Fury
36. Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest
37. BPRD: Hell on Earth: Russia
38. Lobster Johnson: The Burning Hand
39. BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Devil’s Engine & The Long Death
40. BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Pickens County Horror & Others
41. BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Return of the Master
42. BPRD: 1948
[42.5 Hellboy: The Midnight Circus]
43. BPRD: Vampire
44. BPRD: Hell on Earth: A Cold Day in Hell
45. Abe Sapien: Dark and Terrible & The New Race of Man

I left out the humor collection Hellboy Junior and the superhero-crossover collection Hellboy: Masks and Monsters because they’re not in continuity; arguably neither are the two Hellboy: Weird Tales volumes but they’re at least in the spirit of the thing. I listed the original graphic novel hardcovers Hellboy: House of the Living Dead and Hellboy: The Midnight Circus as .5s rather than factoring them into the list proper primarily out of pique that they haven’t been released in paperback yet; to seriously collect the Hellboy series is to frequently feel actively punished by its publisher. No matter — I think it’s tough to argue that this is anything but the best superhero series, broadly construed, of the young century. It’s often frightening and very sad and a blast to read.

“American Hustle” thoughts

January 27th, 2014

David O. Russell’s American Hustle is best described as…

a) a paperback novelization of a Martin Scorsese movie
b) an SNL skit that blew the week’s wig budget
c) one of those movies with a solid cast and serious-looking art direction on the DVD cover when you spot it in the discount bin at a 7/11, and you look at it and go “whoa, this never made it into theaters? How’d that happen? Must be a story there” and pick it up on a whim and watch it and it’s pretty good, nothing spectacular, you can at least see why Jessica Lange and Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman signed on
c) an experiment to see how much of Amy Adams’s breasts we can see without ever actually seeing a whole breast. Oh, sure, Tumblr tells us you can see a single nipple for a single split-second in a single scene, but if anything that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance only emphasizes its ephemerality. Perhaps this — not the “no more fake shit” mantra, not the Abscam scandal, not the long cons that may or may not be being run — is the film’s central metaphor, the areola atop its mammary gland of artifice and fakery. In the end, can you ever, like, really see a breast?

American Hustle is a fun enough time at the movies, but a pretty preposterous contender for the best the art form had to offer in the year that was. Virtually all of the characters, from Christian Bale doing the film’s second-worst Robert DeNiro impression to Bradley Cooper eating the scenery like Bale must have been hitting the craft services table to Jennifer Lawrence emotionally careening all the way around an inconsistently drawn Perfidious Female, are actors wearing cool costumes and doing funny accents rather than people. There are a couple of exceptions: Adams is pretty good in a role that requires the character to realize she’s only an ersatz femme fatale for two doofuses rather than the real thing — she reminds me of Bilbo Baggins’ self-descriptive “butter scraped across too much bread”; she has a moment in a bathroom stall, a look on her face, that’s the film’s sole genuinely sexy moment. Jeremy Renner works quite well as a politician whose crookedness is really and truly just a matter of constituent services; his character is set in opposition to the film’s entire project of letting sleazy-looking ’70s clothes and tri-state area ethnicity stand in for a thoroughgoing examination of a milieu. I found myself wishing his career arc between this and, say, Dahmer had flowed less through action-hero stuff and more into just disappearing into life’s casualties like he did in those two films.

The film did have one truly memorable scene, the one where it all came together, where Bale and Adams’s con artists and Cooper’s overly ambitious FBI agent and Renner’s hapless mayor and Lawrence’s desperate housewife are all drawn into a party where the sting they’re involved in suddenly balloons into a monstrosity capable of bringing down senators and destroying one of the most powerful organized crime outfits in North America, which is to say one capable of getting them all killed, even as the personal deceptions each of them has been running on one another threaten to crack up in restroom and bar-stool screaming matches. Everyone involved suddenly has so much to do, so much to think about, so much of it disconnected and drawing them in different directions, that you realize how straightforward and inert the rest of the material is. Previous party scenes feel sparse not just because of the bizarrely low-rent number of extras, you know? You just want the rest of the movie to have thought this hard about this stuff. Instead everyone gets a happy ending except the lawman, which is hilarious in a world that spent several months pillorying The Wolf of Wall Street for insufficient opprobrium directed to its scumbag characters. Crime pays!