Mark Reviews Movies

American Hustle


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peńa, Shea Whigham

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence)

Running Time: 2:18

Release Date: 12/13/13 (limited); 12/20/13 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 18, 2013

American Hustle is a big, bold, and brash study of big, bold, and brash characters. That's the key to the film's success: the characters. They are con artists and feds, free spirits and housewives, gangsters and politicians, and not a single one of them comes from some pre-defined mold. This is an energetic film in its Scorsese-inspired stylistic flourishes—disorienting jump cuts, nearly nonstop contemporary music cues, free-flowing camerawork, etc.—and winding plot of corruption, but the real momentum here is in the fact that we have no idea how these damaged, desperate characters will react at any given moment.

They are all improvising to various degrees, and in a way, so, too, is the screenplay. The film opens with a most amusingly devious title card: "Some of this actually happened."  Eric Singer and director David O. Russell's script is indeed based upon an FBI sting called "Abscam," a years-long operation that's reduced to the year 1978 here, and the general details in the film are apparently accurate. American Hustle, though, isn't about the factual details. It's not a recounting of history but a look at how so many seemingly disparate people can come together in adversarial collaboration to make history.

Actually, even that seems too broad and sweeping a conclusion. Singer and Russell aren't making any kind of definitive statement about systemic corruption or history with the film; both are merely elements of something far more intimate. This is a film that is constantly in the moment.

Even when its characters are ruminating on the past, it is not so that the movie can allow us to play catch up with them. There's something in those flashbacks, accompanied by narration, that sets forth to define these people in their current lives. It's not just trivia, for example, that Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) used to throw bricks through storefront windows in his neighborhood when he was a child. It was a matter of survival for his timid father's window business, which in turn was a means of survival for the young Irving.

It's this quality, as well as the ruthless methods to which he was drawn to achieve that essential goal, that made him the man he is. Irving still runs the window store and a dry cleaning business, but those are just fronts for his real career. He's a confidence man who deals in forged and stolen art and makes promises of loans to people even more desperate than he is. He has no way to actually give out loans, but he still keeps the fee for his "services."

Everything about Irving is phony, from wardrobe—collected from customers who have left things behind at the cleaners—to his hair. The hair alone, a comb-over so intricate that we're nearly hypnotized by the way he assembles it in the film's opening scene, says a lot about him. It's not just the deception but the confidence it takes to deceive with such bluntness.

That confidence is what attracts Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to him. She's also a survivalist, having dropped her work as a stripper to take a more socially acceptable job. At a certain point, she started faking it, too, taking on the name Edith Greensly, tossing the title "Lady" before it, and adopting an English dialect. They are perfect for each other, and together, they start bringing in more money than either could ever have imagined.

Then the feds get involved. A driven FBI agent named Richie DiMasso (Bradley Cooper) pretends to be one of their marks, arrests Sydney, and coerces Irving to participate in an operation that basically amounts to entrapment. If Irving fools enough people to engage in illegal activity, Richie will get the two con artists out of their legal trouble.

This is just scratching the surface of the long grift—involving United States Congressmen, a New Jersey mayor, the Miami mafia, and a fake sheikh from the Middle East—that follows. The screenplay lets us in on Irving's method and then shows us how Richie's ambition threatens to ruin his own goal. It allows its characters to be completely upfront with their plans and motives only to set in motion a string of interpersonal conflicts that make us question if anyone's loyalties are what we previously believed.

As ideal—in its own warped way—as Sydney and Irving's relationship seems, the wrench is Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman who holds their marriage and son—whom Irving adopted—over his head as a form of coercion. Then there's the fact that Richie, himself engaged, is attracted to Sydney, whom he believes is actually English nobility, and vice versa—or so it seems.

There's a lot of humor to be had from the fact that these three—as much as they distrust and, to varying degrees, hate each other—deserve each other. No one here is innocent or anything approaching honorable, but the performances ensure that our sympathies—misplaced though they may be—are always with these characters. We understand their desperation.

Bale is pathetic in his physical appearance—husky and hunched with that truly ridiculous hairstyle—and as the only foundation of his life (Sydney and his sense of family) starts to crumble, but there's also an active mind at work in trying to counter the forces against him. Adams is at once vulnerable and assertive in a remarkable performance that must make clear distinctions between her character's moments of playacting and authenticity. As the man who should be the moral authority here, Cooper plays his determined FBI agent as a petulant, impatient child who seeks to punish those who dare to make him wait or—perish the thought—question him (Look no further than the climax of the relationship with his boss, played by Louis C.K., which is either payback for giving him reasonable pushback or not getting to the point of a personal anecdote quickly enough).

Lawrence is hilarious as a woman who can do no wrong (She believes the world should thank her for discovering that assorted newfangled appliances can start fires when she doesn't follow the directions properly) but who eventually reveals a frightened side when confronted with change, and an austerely sincere Jeremy Renner plays the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who believes he will be able to renovate Atlantic City and, more importantly, help his struggling constituency with a deal he doesn't know is fraudulent. It's a stellar ensemble that Russell has put together.

He's also assembled a great piece of entertainment that blends curious fact with enlightening fiction. In its study of multiple forms of deception, American Hustle is freewheeling in form, and it's a perfect complement to these fascinating characters, who are trying to persevere by the skin of their teeth.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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