We can talk all day about the ongoing tanning of America, but there are still large segments of the country where white folks and black folks live very separate lives. One of those places is Hollywood, where the travails of white folks seem to rivet the attention of filmmakers as nothing else does. Consider American Hustle and Inside Llewyn Davis, both in theaters now, both likely Oscar contenders, both focused exclusively on white folks.
Here in New York there are huge billboards advertising American Hustle. The five lead actors, dressed elegantly, are arrayed shoulder-to-shoulder, everyone looking very serious. The image recalls the billboards for George Clooney's Ocean's 11 and Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas -- not to mention Rakim's"Hyper as a heart attack/Nobody smiling" from I Ain't No Joke. All of which primes us for ... what? A slick and good-humored Vegas caper flick? A searing slab of inside-the-Mob family drama?
Psych! How about none of the above? There isn't a single moment in the movie itself that comes within a mile of the dignity and resolve radiating from the characters on that billboard. On the contrary, what we're given is a group portrait of some very small-time New Jersey hustlers stumbling around from fuck-up to fuck-up. The plot, such as it is, is loosely based on the Abscam Scandal, a real-life late-Seventies FBI investigation that uncovered a bunch of corruption among elected officials.
The real interest of the film, however, is in the lives of the penny-ante Garden State crimies noted above. In effect, we're back in the land of The Sopranos. But if The Sopranos faithfully depicted the perilousness of that life, along with the duplicity and rank stupidity of some of its characters, it never condescended to them. Indeed, it was clear at every moment that David Chase, the show's creator, loved his characters, flaws and all, and empathized with their struggles.
By contrast, David O. Russell, director of American Hustle, seems to feel little but contempt for his characters. Every single one of them is greedy, treacherous, dumb and desperate -- and even so they get nowhere. No matter what they do, life is miserable.
There is some compensating interest, I suppose, in the extent to which Russell identifies with his characters, even as he loathes them. In fact, it's not hard to see the whole flick as an allegory for the well-known misery of Hollywood movie making. Everybody's ready to kill his own mother to get the movie made, ninety-nine times out of a hundred they fail to get the movie made, and the one time they succeed, the finished product turns out to be a reeking embarrassment for all concerned.
This no-exit hellishness is very well captured in a scene with poor Amy Adams. Forced to spend the whole film with her tits hanging out of her dress, it turns out that once upon a time -- big surprise -- her character worked as a stripper on a pole. Sure it was humiliating but -- and here's the perversely crowning touch: some part of the character loved stripping for dough. She found it "freeing." And that's exactly the kind of lie David O. Russell tells himself.
Inside Llewyn Davis recounts the story of a week in the life of an aspiring folk singer in New York's Greenwich Village in 1961. To be sure, it's a different time and place than New Jersey in the Seventies, but like American Hustle, it focuses on the life struggles of some working-class white folks. Unlike the mooks in American Hustle, however, Davis is an artist. His character is based on the real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, and his talent, complemented by his awareness of the shallowness of much of the folk music scene, seems to earn him some grudging respect from his creators, the Coen Brothers.
This is a very welcome development. The Coens can be even harder on their fictional creations than Russell is on the characters in American Hustle. Ever see A Serious Man? Released in 2009, it's about Larry Gopnik, a Jewish suburbanite in Minnesota in 1967, who leads the kind of life Llewyn Davis might've chosen to live if he hadn't been an artist. Nakedly disdainful of this blameless shnook, the Coens beat him like a piñata all film long.
But they like Llewyn Davis, even as they have him walk into one wall after another. And their affection rubbed off on me. I liked Davis, too. His talent won't transform the world -- that would be left to Dylan, who's right around the corner -- but he's devoted to it nonetheless. And meanwhile, he's certainly more soulful than the Peter, Paul & Mary stand-ins on the scene.
This winning modesty is reflected in the film, which follows Davis around during his decidedly unglamorous daily routine; sleeping on one friend's couch and then another's, playing at a sparsely attended nightclub on Bleecker Street, driving to and from Chicago for no very good reason, and arguing with his sister, a young single mother who's living a much more conventional -- if equally stressful -- life in Queens. It's very low-key, but it's very well done.
Each of these films bonks you on the head with a big fat symbol. In American Hustle, it's the nail polish worn by Jennifer Lawrence's character. "It's perfume-y, but there's also something rotten," she says about it, full of wonder and affection. "Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they're all laced with something nasty. Sweet and sour. Rotten and delicious. Flowers and garbage." In Llewyn Davis, the symbol is an unloved cat. Or, rather, several unloved cats. One is lost. Another is abandoned. A third is run over by a car.
So, rotten perfume or dead cat? Those are life options available to the white folks in these movies. Is it any wonder they have the blues?
This piece originally appeared on Crazy Hood Productions.