American Hustle

I may not be the first to notice, but I’m going to say it anyway:  director David O. Russell is on a roll; I mean a Hitchcock in the fifties kind of roll.  Seemingly every year he is putting out a masterpiece.  In 2010 it was The Fighter, last year it was Silver Linings Playbook, and this year he delivers American Hustle.  To stretch the comparison way too far, Christian Bale is his Jimmy Stewart, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are his Grace Kelly and Kim Novak.  Danny Elfman is his Bernard Herrmann.  OK, I’ll stop now, but you get the point.  We are watching a talented director at the height of his powers.

American Hustle is inspired by the Abscam scandal that rocked the nation in the 70’s.  The FBI, in the movie personified by Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, conducts an investigation into possible corruption in New Jersey politics.  DiMaso decides to run a scam to catch Camden mayor Carmine Polito, played by Jeremy Renner, taking a bribe.  He employs the aid of a con man named Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale and his partner Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams.  He’s just busted them for fraud and therefore has leverage over them.  Everything goes pretty well until DiMaso begins to widen the investigation to catch members of congress and finally a powerful east coast mob boss.  Rosenfeld and Prosser, who have been successful because they keep their scams small in scale, are getting increasingly uncomfortable.  To make matters worse, Rosenfeld’s wife, Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence threatens the scam with her outrageous behavior.  This puts not only the operation but their lives in danger.

We’re pretty far removed from actual events here.  The first title card that comes up says, “Some of these events actually happened.”  I vaguely remember hearing about this on the news at the time.  There was some controversy over whether or not the FBI entrapped their targets.  I read on Wikipedia, however, that all the convictions held up on appeal.

There are some structural problems with the script by Eric Singer and the director.  At the beginning they feel the need to create an extensive back story for Rosenfeld, Prosser and even Rosalyn, going to the lengths of adding narration to the soundtrack from Rosenfeld and Prosser, giving their impressions of each other.  This probably adds an unnecessary half hour to the beginning of the film.  To hook us Russell opens the film at a dramatic moment in the middle of the plot and then fills in with flashbacks, but there’s no internal logic to them; they’re just thrown in whenever it’s convenient and the same goes with the narration.

But that doesn’t stop American Hustle from being a great film.  The technical elements are sound.  Costuming and make-up are especially effective in portraying the particular time and place of the story.  The wild hair, the polyester suits with wide lapels, the plunging necklines on both the males and females all evoke the late 70’s and are also sources of humor.  In the screening I saw, every time Richie DiMaso made an entrance in an outrageous disco suit, the audience laughed.  But the costumes and hair also serve the purpose of emphasizing the theme that none of these characters are who they say they are.  They are hustling to survive as the tagline says.  Like in any good caper movie the scams and double crosses keep us guessing as the plot advances.

The cinematography also adds to the seventies feel of the movie.  The DP Linus Sandren works with a color palette of grainy oranges and yellows to create a tacky look that evokes the period.  Like the polyester suits, everything looks fake and cheap.

With a cast like this, however, the best thing about American Hustle is the performances.  As usual Christian Bale disappears into his role, physically altering his body to play an aging, out of shape man.  He brings out Rosenfeld’s intelligence and vanity often in the same moment.  Amy Adams’ performance dims a little in the light of her co-stars but her portrayal of a smart desperate woman doing what she has to do to survive is excellent.  Jeremy Renner is terrific as a loud passionate politician who is genuinely trying to revive the economy of his state and is willing to work with anybody, even the mob, to do it.  It is a surprisingly touching performance.  Bradley Cooper does solid work as an FBI agent who is not as smart as he wants to be or thinks he is.  You see right through DiMaso’s bluff.  But the best and most funny performance is Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, Rosenfeld’s wife.  In her face, you can see her mind malfunctioning as she twists events to evade any blame at all for things going wrong, even when it is obviously her fault.  She completely becomes her character, even more than Bale does.  What a treasure Jennifer Lawrence is.

No one is ever going to match Hitchcock’s record of consistency over decades.  But Russell is in a groove that very few directors ever experience.  According to IMDB he has three projects currently in the works.  I can hardly wait.

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