‘American Hustle:’ Film Review

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated that there were no second acts in American life.  He was wrong about that, of course.  Just look at Steve Jobs or Ben Affleck.  Two of our more celebrated fictional characters of the moment, Don Draper and Walter White, are all about new beginnings and taking on a new identity.  Elsewhere on TV, so-called reality shows give us hyped-up versions of supposedly actual people.  Our comic book heroes almost always have a secret identity.  Hell, identity theft is a huge concern in modern law enforcement circles.   Everybody wants to be somebody else, and, as a resident of Los Angeles County, I can vouch for the city as a natural habitat for deluded people wanting a change of identity garments.   American culture itself is largely based on the idea that you can be anybody you want in this country, regardless of whether or not that conforms with reality.

This idea of identity is at the heart of director David O. Russell’s fantastic new film, American Hustle.  Russell has been on quite a roll as of late, his last two films were The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.  Both of those pictures were Oscar winners and big commercial successes, and it seems that Russell used that clout to move forward with American Hustle.  If Russell can give us smart, sophisticated entertainment for grownups every couple of years, that’s really great news.

Based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s, American Hustle stars Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a New York dry cleaner who dabbles as a con artist on the side.  His partner in crime, as well as his lover, is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).  Together, Irving and Sydney fleece desperate people in a banking scam that involves Sydney posing as British royalty.  Eventually, the two are pinched by an incredibly overzealous FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  Richie forces Irving and Sydney to teach him the con game and nab some high level officials in exchange for Sydney avoiding time in prison.  Their primary target is Camine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey.  Carmine is up to his eyes in graft, but his corruption really is for the betterment of the community he loves and represents.  Complicating all of these plans is Irving’s young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a bored housewife with a penchant for setting the kitchen on fire.  She’s unstable and really wants to know exactly what’s going on.

Richie, Irving, and Sydney plot a sting operation for Carmine that involves the economic rebirth of Atlantic City tourism along the Jersey Shore.  This sting attracts more than a few members of Congress, not to mention a whole slew of organized crime figures.  Once the mob is involved, Irving and Sydney know they’re probably in real danger and have to make a lifeline in the scam for themselves.  One of the really fun parts of American Hustle is trying to figure out who is playing whom, and to what degree the games are being played.

There are so many great things here I don’t know where to start being effusive.  Let’s start with the cast.  I don’t know what’s happened, but Russell has gone from a director many actors like George Clooney said they would never work with again (For fun some time, look up YouTube videos of Russell and Lily Tomlin screaming at each other on the set of I Heart Huckabees.) to a guy who’s rounded up as fine an ensemble of revolving talent as anybody in the game today.  He’s brought back major players from both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and this cast is so stacked it’s kind of ridiculous.   Overweight and with a horrible comb-over, Bale once again physically disappears into the role.  He’s been doing that for so long and so well that I think we may start taking it for granted.  We shouldn’t.  He does great work that really centers the film.  Cooper is as good at doing tightly wrapped as anybody this side of Tom Cruise; here he can’t hide his ambition to move up in the Bureau.   Louis C.K. is a great comic foil as Cooper’s boss at the FBI.  Renner (new to the Russell family) exudes a lot of pathos as a man who truly cares about his city and sees corruption as okay if the ends justify the means.  But, it’s the women who really steal the show.  Adams is fantastic; sexy, smart and very tough.  Sydney is a step ahead of everybody, and the role gives Adams an additional gift of getting to play with a bad and wavering English accent.  I kind of marvel at Jennifer Lawrence at this point.  She won an Oscar at 23, and she could win again this year.  She’s both Katniss and Mystique, meaning she has film franchises that should set her up financially for the rest of her life.  She is completely beguiling in television appearances; she is, in fact, America’s Sweetheart.  She’s also ridiculously talented, and she practically steals the movie.  Rosalyn may be unstable and fearless (a scene where she flirts with some mob guys is amazing), but she’s also the only character in the film who isn’t presenting a false front to the world.   Russell has become a very formidable director of actors, his previous two films combined for six acting Oscar nominations and three wins, kind of incredible numbers.  American Hustle is a clinic in modern film acting, with Elizabeth Rohm (She was Kate Lockley, Angel fans.), Michael Pena, and the half-face guy from Boardwalk Empire providing great support.  Robert De Niro even shows up as a mob boss. 

Collaborating with co-writer Eric Singer, Russell’s script plays like a social satire paired with some really raw human emotion.  Yes, the ABSCAM case really existed, but the movie is unexpectedly funny, at times, very funny; however, the movie seems to never lose track of the fact that real people were involved in all of this.  The movie is big but never tips over into parody.  A title card at the beginning says, “A lot of this actually happened.”  The movie contains a couple of bravura set pieces, both of them set at social gatherings.

The production design is first rate, and the movie looks fantastic.  Credit DP Linus Sandgren, Production Designer Judy Becker, and Costumer Michael Wilkinson.   American Hustle wallows in its Seventiesness in the same way The Fighter wallowed in its working class Irishness.  I mean that as a good thing.  This world is just as immersive as Pandora was in Avatar.  Period music selections are spot on, as well. 

Do you get the sense that I liked it?  I really did.  American Hustle is smart entertainment for adults and a very welcome holiday treat.  It’s also one of the very best movies of the year.

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