The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, American Hustle, and Saving Mr. Banks

Dragons and dirtbags and Disney revisited.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Part Two: In which we rejoin Bilbo and Gandalf on their way to Erebor in company with the questing dwarves Thorin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy—you remember. Once again they're menaced by fearsome orcs and snarling wargs as they gamely transit glorious New Zealand. Some familiar faces pass through: the mind-reading Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the mushroom-addled wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Orlando Bloom's fiercely blond Legolas is dragged back from the Lord of the Rings series (no word from Tolkien about this), and even the fiery Eye of Sauron gets a quick peek in.

Okay, okay. The Desolation of Smaug is actually a lot livelier than the first Hobbit installment, An Unexpected Journey. For one thing, there's nothing in it as fun-smothering as the endless hobbit-hole chow-down that opened the previous film. There's a lot more action this time, and at several points director Peter Jackson exceeds even his own very high standard in designing and executing it.

The story is so simple that we wonder once more why it should take nearly three friggin hours to tell it. Bilbo (amiable Martin Freeman) is slogging along with the 13 dwarves en route to the ancestral homeland from which they were long ago expelled by the dragon Smaug. Their leader, Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage), has recruited him to join in re-entering the stony innards of the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug still sleeps, and, once there, to find and secure a glowy artifact called the Arkenstone, which is…I don't know, really important. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, crinkly as ever) is intermittently absent, but Bilbo is still secretly in possession of the One Ring he snookered away from Gollum in the last film. Maybe that'll help.

Entering the dark, broody forest of Mirkwood (where "the very air is heavy with illusion," Gandalf mutters), the party is attacked by a very real army of giant spiders—a scary scene that allows Jackson to flex his low-budget-horror muscles. Before long the hardy band is imprisoned by a tribe of unfriendly elves. But then they manage a spectacular escape—the movie's most thrilling sequence – in which Bilbo and company, each squeezed into an empty wine barrel, plunge down a churning waterway as warrior orcs pursue them, leaping from bank to bank, and an intervening band of friendlier elves wades in to fend them off. Blood gushes, limbs fly, and the action builds in endlessly inventive ways. Only when this sequence finally concludes do we note that it's gone on too damn long.

Likewise the movie's final set piece—the confrontation with Smaug. It takes place in a vast Piranesian treasure chamber filled with shifting dunes of shiny gold coins. The dragon—a digital wonder the size of a bloody Airbus—speaks in what's said to be the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch (I wouldn't have guessed). He and Bilbo trade tense bons mots as the nervous hobbit edges his way toward the gleaming Arkenstone and the dragon grows ever more menacing. It's a pretty great scene that surely could have been cut down by, oh, 10, 15 minutes or so. But, yet again, no.

The feeling of bloat that attends the whole Hobbit enterprise remains off-putting. Jackson says that he keeps his Middle-earth franchise going because if he doesn't, someone else will, and he wants to protect the unique fantasy world that he created. But the question persists: why did he feel it necessary to inflate into a trio of three-hour films a story that Tolkien tossed off in 300 pages? The stretch marks continue to show. More regrettably, these latter-day movies lack the enchantment of the Rings trilogy. There's nothing in the first two pictures as beautiful as the scene in Return of the King in which Pippin, detained in the castle of Denethor, gives forth with a haunting a cappella ballad while his vile host wolfs down his dinner with lip-smacking indifference. There are still marvels to be seen in these new Hobbit films, but they're almost entirely technological. The magic has flown.

American Hustle

American Hustle is a wannabe Scorsese movie that could be left wallowing in the wake of an actual Scorsese movie—the superior Wolf of Wall Street—which opens on December 25th. Director and cowriter David O. Russell hits some vintage Scorsese notes—the scheming lowlifes, the dreadful '70s fashions—and then fully bares his intentions by bringing in Robert De Niro for a one-scene cameo as a scowling mobster, instantly triggering memories of Goodfellas and Casino.

Like those two Scorsese films, American Hustle has a true-crime root—in this case the late-'70s Abscam affair, an FBI sting operation that brought down seven corrupt U.S. congressmen. To organize that undertaking, the Bureau employed a professional conman named Melvin Weinberg, here renamed Irving Rosenfeld and played by Christian Bale with all-out commitment. Bale's Irving is a balding shlub with a billowing gut (the actor gained 43 pounds to play the role), a grotesque comb-over, and a wardrobe of burgundy-velvet suits, ill-advised ascots and gaudy neck chains and pinkie rings. Remember, the movie keeps reminding us, we're in the '70s!

Irving nominally operates a string of dry-cleaning shops around the outer boroughs of New York City. But his high-flying lifestyle is largely financed by loan-sharking and a thriving trade in dubious artworks. He's married to a honking bubblehead named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), but has lately become infatuated with an ex-stripper named Sydney (Amy Adams), who longs for a more adventurous life and decides to move into Irving's. Adopting an English accent to become "Lady Edith Greenley," Sydney brings a helpful infusion of faux class to his various scams, and all goes well until they're busted by manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie is intent on becoming a star G-man, and to that end he's devised a plan to surreptitiously record crooked politicos accepting proffered bribes. Richie offers Irving and Sydney immunity if they'll help out, which they reluctantly agree to do.

Richie's main target is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Carmine is basically a good guy, and Irving likes him—the man sincerely wants to help boost his state's economy by luring big money into the recently legalized Atlantic City casino industry. Despite reservations, Irving baits Carmine by calling in an Arab sheik with money to burn. (He's actually a fake—a Mexican named Paco, played by Michael Peña.) Meanwhile, Richie has developed the hots for Sydney; she tells Irving she's going to play along with the love-struck agent's carnal fantasies, but Irving soon begins to wonder who's actually being played. Then Rosalyn finds out about Sydney, starts eyeing a young mob hunk named Pete (Jack Huston), and…what a mess!

Russell has done memorable work with several of these actors before: Bale and Adams featured in his 2010 The Fighter and Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro starred in Silver Linings Playbook. They're all good here, too. But the movie's tone is muddled. Cooper and Lawrence are going for comedy: his over-wound Richie is driven to fits of hyperventilating lust by the teasing Sydney; and Lawrence, who has yet to be bad in anything, brings a raucous vitality to the role of Rosalyn, a layabout wife largely occupied with doing her nails, working on her artificial tan and tormenting her hapless mate. (Summing her up in a wildly mangled metaphor, Irving calls Rosalyn "the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.")

Bale and Renner are allowed to dig deeper into their characters, but that turns out to undermine the movie's broad comic surface. Renner's Carmine, with his ruffle-front shirts and towering pompadour, is a family man with a big heart; and Bale's Irving grows increasingly conscience-stricken as he leads the cheery mayor toward his downfall. The director's attempted blend of emotional introspection and screwball humor never quite coheres (and it doesn't help that Adams' character never comes fully into focus—what is it that Sydney really wants?)

American Hustle has already been drenched with pre-release acclaim (the New York Film Critics Circle last week named it the best picture of the year). This does the movie no favors. Russell has gifts of his own, but his venture so deep into Scorsese territory was fated to fall short—he doesn't have Scorsese's mad comic energy. Hustle is a good solid film, very funny in parts, and it's certainly worth seeing. That should be enough.

Saving Mr. Banks

A movie about Walt Disney, you say? Produced by Walt Disney Pictures? Surely we can be forgiven for anticipating an exercise in corporate ancestor worship.

But no. Or not exactly. Saving Mr. Banks depicts Walt Disney's years-long seduction of the English author Pamela Travers in pursuit of the film rights to her popular children's book Mary Poppins—the subsequent basis of his Oscar-winning 1964 musical fantasy. While the movie may have "heartwarming holiday fare" all but engraved above its title, it's entertainingly crafted holiday fare, and it seems likely to warm the hearts of all but the grimmest cynics. Whatever the accuracy of the events it portrays (splintery real-life edges have no doubt been carefully sanded down), the Disney Effect overcomes any skepticism we might have—we accept the story because we want to believe.

The picture is illuminated by the glowing chemistry of its two stars – Emma Thompson as the maddeningly prim Travers and Tom Hanks as the indefatigably affable Disney. Travers is introduced as a child in her native Australia. The year is 1906, and her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, restrained and affecting) has just lost another job. His kids love him, though, and we see that his gift for storytelling is leaving an imprint on little Pamela. (Later, with the arrival of a no-nonsense governess, we see Travers' most famous literary creation foreshadowed.)

The bulk of the story is set in 1961. Travers has for many years been coasting on the success of her best-selling book (she actually went on to write several more Poppins novels). But the royalties have now dried up, and a new income stream is desperately needed. She has been pursued for 20 years by Disney, a major Mary Poppins fan who's determined to build a movie out of her famous creation. She has always resisted Walt's sizable offers for the rights to Mary Poppins, but now she's forced to hear him out. So Disney flies her to Los Angeles. She hates it—hates the easygoing California lifestyle, hates the unwanted chumminess of the people she meets. Even the sunshine is vulgar, she feels.

Her hostility is reinforced when she arrives at Disney headquarters and learns that the movie Walt has in mind is a musical—and that it will also contain animation. Maybe even dancing penguins. Worse yet, Dick Van Dyke! Travers is appalled. The story proceeds as a clash of personal cultures. Travers drives the Disney artists and songwriters nuts with her pedantic demands (she has unwisely been given script approval). But Walt never stops humoring her. She sees him as a purveyor of witless corn, but Disney, a Midwesterner, sees nothing at all wrong with that.

Thompson is so good here—carefully unfurling the hidden sorrows at the heart of Travers's frosty personality —that we're left with no choice but to embrace the movie's own large portion of corn. And Hanks, with his trim mustache and easy warmth, is a perfect foil: he doesn't just want the best for Travers, he wants the best for the whole world (in fact, he wants a Disney world).

There are appealing performances around the edges of the film, too, chiefly by Paul Giamatti as the warm-hearted limo driver who tries to lighten Travers up a little, and by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Disney songwriters who bear the brunt of her most exasperating creative dictates. The movie is light on its feet and cleverly constructed (the immortal Poppins song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is buoyantly deployed), and it ends exactly where we know it must: in tears. Of happiness, if it need be noted.