Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review: American Hustle

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Some will argue that David O. Russell's "American Hustle" is, at best, a sleekly-shot and terrifically performed 1970s-set caper and nothing more. And while it's true that the film looks great and the cast is solid right down to the minor roles, I believe that Russell's latest, which is his best in 14 years, is also a wickedly clever take on the idea of American reinvention and the lengths to which people will go to survive, no matter how much conning - of themselves and others - is involved.

The film, set in 1978, is a fictional tale tangled up in the Abscam corruption investigation that netted a handful of U.S. Congress members, a senator, Philadelphia City Council members and a member of the New Jersey state Senate.

Christian Bale, donning a terrible combover, a pot belly and some unforgettably tacky '70s threads, plays Irving Rosenfeld, a brilliant con man who falls in love at first sight with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a young woman with a past she wants to erase who becomes a willing pupil to Irving's schemes and scams. They first meet at a pool party where they bond over a love for Duke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues."

Irving and Sydney, who goes by the alter ego Lady Edith Greensly when she's on the take, mostly steal from desperate people unable to obtain legitimate bank loans. Unfortunately for them, one of their marks is an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who then forces them to set up larger scams in an attempt to catch bigger fish - in this case, several politicians, some mobsters and fellow grifters.

Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the well-liked mayor of Camden (based on Angelo Errichetti, who was arrested in the Abscam busts), finds himself ensnared in the trap set by Irving, DiMaso and Sydney. One of the film's most fascinating relationships is that between Irving and Carmine. Irving recognizes Carmine as a kindred spirit, of sorts, with good intentions whose back-door dealings are done not for personal gain, but rather to help the people he represents. He's a good guy who is, unfortunately, caught up in a crooked system and you can see Irving's pain in knowing that his new pal will take a fall.

The wild card in the mix is Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving's dumb-as-a-fox wife who, in many ways, is a better con artist than her husband. Their marriage may be loveless, but Irving refuses to flee with Sydney because Rosalyn's son, whom Irving has adopted, is close to his heart.

On the one hand, "American Hustle" is a crime drama and a '70s period piece that has taken some inspiration from Martin Scorsese, from the fast-talking characters to the shots that swoop in on the characters to make dramatic gestures, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," from its comedic-before-the-storm style of storytelling to its soundtrack, which includes everything from Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren to Donna Summer and the Bee Gees.

On the other, "Hustle" fits in perfectly with Russell's other films - "Three Kings," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter" - about characters who dream big - but occasionally against the voice of reason - and attempt to make their goals a reality, despite often ridiculously overwhelming odds.

The director is one of the best at working with actors and his ensemble here, which is comprised of a handful of thespians with whom he worked on his previous two films, is spectacular. Bale always brings the goods, but he is especially impressive here, displaying a level of humanism and humor rarely seen in his characters. Cooper brings an often hilarious mania to his obsessive FBI agent and Lawrence is a scene stealer as the conniving and not quite as dumb as she seems Rosalyn. And for a guy caught up in a corruption investigation, Renner is particularly sympathetic as Polito. Adams, perhaps, has the trickiest role of all as a woman pretending to be a whole other person and then moving back and forth between these two characters, depending on with whom she is dealing.

As Irving tells us late in the film, the story of survival is an ongoing one. "American Hustle" slyly observes how we all fool ourselves and others to make a road toward a better life, disguise our true selves to protect our vulnerability or reinvent ourselves many times over. On top of that, it's a showcase of great performances and writing, a whole lot of fun and one of the year's best.

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