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AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) review

December 22, 2013

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written by: David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer

produced by: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle and Megan Ellison

directed by: David O. Russell

rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence)

runtime: 138 min.

U.S. release date: December 13, 2013 (limited) and December 20, 2013 (wide) 

 

“American Hustle” has one of the most memorable openings I’ve seen all year. I’m not going to tell you anything else about it, except to say that the movie definitely wins an award for Best Hair. It’s an attention-grabbing scene, that, when considering the film as a whole, is just the beginning – that initial climb – on a roller coaster ride full of cocaine, plunging necklines, scheming and deception. In his follow-up to last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook”, writer/director David O. Russell delivers another thoroughly absorbing picture that circles around and zooms in on brazen, flawed and often miserable characters.

In the late 70s, clever con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) uses a chain of legitimate dry cleaning stores as cover, while selling counterfeit art along the east coast. But that’s not enough, this paunchy guy with a beyond-bad comb-over is restless, looking to see his bogus loan scams take off. Along comes Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a savvy businesswoman who immediately clicks with Irving and with a convincing phony British accent and a name change (calling herself Lady Edith Greensleeve), the two become quite a pair as they run scams, manipulating the gullible to shell out their cash for bogus investments as they fall in love – with each other and  the lavish lifestyle they embrace.

Irving seems to have found his soul mate in Sydney, who gets as high off a successful con as he does, but he also has his hands full with his unstable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and their adopted eight year-old boy. Despite falling for Sydney, there’s just no way Irving can shake his loudmouth wife, especially when she becomes suspicious of her husband’s criminal activity and wants to horn in on the action.

 

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When the two are caught by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a federal agent posing as an easy mark, out to make a career bust. Forced to cooperate with Richie or else face some serious time, the two agree to lure corrupt politicians as well as the Jersey mafia. For Richie, this is exciting – he gets to team-up with the skillful grifters, hit on Sydney and is taken under Irving’s tutelage. The three hone in on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who’s convinced that building casinos along Atlantic City will benefit his citizens.

That requires cash though, which comes in the form of a phony Arab sheik (Michael Peña) conjured by the new trio as an entrapment tool. Working with the feds, they soon embark on a tricky operation, one that requires all the pieces and players falling in line with appropriate precision. But jealousy, drug addictions and ambition get the best of everyone, resulting in a quagmire of hilarious and disastrous proportions.

As the trailers for the film indicate, part of what we have here is Russell’s Scorsese film. From the use of music of the era to the multiple character narrations and all the criminal activity involved, this certainly feels like a nod to “Goodfellas” or “Casino”. Although Scorsese definitely injects humor to the violent worlds he offers, Russell is more overt with his comedy, presenting pathetic and cocky characters in a humorous manner amid awkward situations. Russell and his co-writer Eric Warren Singer, use the first act to weave back and forth to each character’s backstory, giving us an idea of what motivates who they are. We here Irving and Sydney’s own voice as they reflect on where they’ve come from and what they desire. It’s a successfully engaging approach that connects viewers to these engaging characters, immersing them in their world as well.

 

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Also like Scorsese’s two films, the characters and situations here are inspired by actual events (loosely-inspired, in this case), based on the ABSCAM (which stands for “Arab-scam”) sting operation, but much has been altered to offer a fluent cinematic translation. In fact, when I first heard that Russell was making a movie about this subject – about which I knew little about and admittedly didn’t have much interest in – I thought it kind of boring. I was wrong. Just like he did with “The Fighter” and “The Silver Linings Playbook”,  Russell takes stories based on actual events and emphasizes the characters in them, taking his time to show us who they are while putting the styles of the period on full display.

While the second act revolves around the main hustle, it also includes the volatile love triangle between Irving, Sydney and Richie, with some delicious screen time for the contentious interaction between Sydney and Rosalyn. Watching these actors lose themselves in these roles is absolutely entertaining. It makes sense that Russell has cast these four characters with actors he’s worked with on his last two films. “American Hustle” finds them committed in every sense, especially physically – from Bale’s beer gut and bad hair to Renner’s bouffant and Cooper’s perm – adding distinctiveness to their personalities. Each actor is phenomenal in their role and seeing them in ways we haven’t seen before is a real treat.

The two standouts for me though are Adams and Lawrence, who both portray strong woman who know how control the men around them, be it with sex appeal or emotional manipulation. Lawrence is especially something to behold, giving Rosalyn that unhinged psyche and big, captivating intensity, but Adams matches her and has fantastic chemistry with both Bale and Cooper.

 

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Russell also utilizes two actors to play key roles that turn out to be quite memorable. He reunites with Robert DeNiro who plays Victor Tallegia, a head mafioso whom Bale and Cooper must con and Louis C. K. plays Stoddard Thorsen, Richie’s exasperated boss. I had to do a double-take with DeNiro, who is, at-first, unrecognizable in his thinned-out hair and dark-rimmed glasses. He’s an easy fit for the role, having played countless gangsters in the past. Sure, another actor could have played the role, but it’s still fun to see a variation on the type of character he’s known for. But, the scenes between comedian Louis C.K. and Cooper are absolutely hilarious. Louis C.K. doesn’t necessarily play his character solely for laughs, but his interactions are quite comical throughout the movie. Seeing Cooper’s Richie do a mocking impersonation of his boss is quite a hoot too.

With all that goes on in “American Hustle”, Russell keeps a tight reign on things, even though he’s flowing from scene to scene, ‘hustling’ in his distinctive stylistic fashion. If there’s any overall flaw it can be found in the third and final act, which comes across a bit bloated, hitting the audience over the head with what the film has been saying about authenticity and believability throughout the feature,. Regardless, the surprises come in the form of the performances, which are appropriately over-the-top and effortlessly engaging.

This isn’t a film interesting in recounting historical events as a procedural nor is it just an exercise in the con genre. “American Hustle” is first and foremost a film that studies behaviors and personalities, with Russell filling his film with electric energy, clashing conversations and manipulative sexuality. It’s easily an awards contender on many levels and a highly satisfying experience for fans of both the director and the excellent cast. Since I consider myself a part of that fandom, I certainly look forward to viewing this film again and again.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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