Film Review: American Hustle

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American Hustle | Director David O. Russell | Score: 7.2

The ’70s were about many things, of course, many of which have already been so well documented as to become little more than a litany of tacky clichés and good costume ornaments for a throw-back era party. But beyond the leisure suits, garish make-up, abysmal hair and flaunting lifestyles, what it really came down to was a decade of whole-cloth reinvention: The idea that you weren’t stuck playing your life out the way you might have been resigned to in another era. If you didn’t like who you were, you could change your drug habit, buy a new hat, move a block down the street and try again with something different. So many parents were busy trying to find themselves and make these personal discoveries, many of the decade’s children were blissfully left to their own devices.

David O. Russell was born in 1958, meaning he spent his formative teen years under the auspices of this generational freak-out where the adults were acting like kids and kids were having to form their own lives apart from everyone that was meant to be guiding them on their way. It therefore comes as no shock that his highly-anticipated film concerning the infamous ABSCAM affair — a twisty FBI sting that involved a fake Arab sheik and many politicians taking bribes — takes as its main protagonists four people in deep need of reinventing themselves.

First there’s Irving (Christian Bale), a balding comb-over con artist who is betrothed to one nutty dame, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), with her young son from a previous marriage, and massively in love with another, Syndey (Amy Adams), a fellow con artist. They both run afoul of a small-time FBI sting lead by Richie (Bradley Cooper), a fully permed, hirsute agent with a penchant for stepping over the head of his befuddled boss (Louis C.K.) and has dreams of making a huge splash nabbing white-collar criminals in order to make his burgeoning career. Finally caught dead to rights for fraud, the pair of cons agree to help Richie nail other con-artist types in exchange for their freedom.

What begins as a relatively small-time operation, however, soon swells into something altogether ridiculous. The Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), working diligently to rebuild his state and revitalize Atlantic City, gets ensnared when the FBI trio unveil a thoroughly fictitious Arab sheikh (played, amusingly enough, by Latino Michael Pena), who promises to bankroll a swarm of casinos if enough people play ball with him. Before too long, all this action attracts the attentions of the mob, lead by a very powerful heavy-hitter (a guest cameo I won’t spoil here), whose sudden presence sends Irving into an anxiety tailspin and the undisciplined Richie into conniptions of joy.

Based, very loosely, on the ABSCAM sting of the late ’70s, the film uses the framework of the con as a jumping off point for its debased characters (a point it makes readily clear with its opening title card: “Some of this actually happened”). Thus freed from the constraints of historical accuracy, Russell and co-screen writer Eric Singer get to cut loose, and the result is some of the more engrossing fun of the cinematic season.

Say what you will about Russell’s unorthodox techniques — a notorious youtube clip from years ago has him absolutely berating a beaten-down looking Lily Tomlin on the set of his brilliantly peculiar I Heart Huckabees, and George Clooney once belted him in the face on the set of Three Kings — he has always gotten consistently great work from his actors, and here, with the talent he managed to amass, he gets startlingly good performances across the board. Bale, with his ridiculous comb-over and middle-age paunch is about as far from the histrionic melodramatics of Batman as would be legal, but he’s always been a shape-shifter. At this point, Adams and Lawrence are pretty well established commodities, and both are brilliant here. Most surprising is Cooper, who seems to have long been looking for roles that stretch him out of leading-man romantics. In this, he has found a savior in the quirky Russell, as with last year’s Oscar-enabled Silver Linings Playbook, their first collaboration. He plays Richie with just the right amount of hubris and vulnerability, a man with enormous ambition but far less intelligence than he realizes. By the end of the film, when it’s revealed just how much he has been taken, he becomes something of a tragic figure.

Most importantly, as with many of Russell’s ensembles, it feels as if the actors were given the space to really work through their characters, allowing them to reach deeply into their craft and deliver crackling good performances. Like a party that has just the right vibe for everyone to enjoy themselves, the film hums along with nary a hitch. What Russell has really done here is create the perfect ’70s vehicle, a rollicking good time involving a host of deeply disturbed characters, in whose swirling myriad of anxieties, insecurities and perturbations, leads us through a deeply satisfying merry chase. It might not be able to encapsulate the entire era, but it does a fine job representing many of the ways ’70s-era parents went so deeply off-track.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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