Movie Review By Mikey (Dec 20, 2013)
AMERICAN HUSTLE (5 STARS out of 5 STARS)
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 predefined mold. This is an energetic film in its lavish 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 (which happens to be the best-written one this year). 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 different 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 reflecting on the past, it is not so that it can allow us to play catch up with them. There’s something in those flashbacks accompanied by narration which 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 confident 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 literally 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 merely scratching the surface of the long grift that follows. While somewhat complicated, it works with finesse. The sharp, hilarious, and intense script along with its perfect ensemble sell it throughout.
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. After watching the brilliant performances from Bale & Adams thus far, one thinks the acting cannot get any better. Then Lawrence jumps on-screen and indisputably steals the film from every other actor. Her character is complex, fascinating, and finely nuanced. She plays it to perfection and will almost certainly receive an Oscar nomination (along with her costars Bradley Cooper, and quite possibly Amy Adams and Christian Bale as well).
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. That is another quality that makes American Hustle the most monumental movie of 2013.
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!
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. Perhaps one of the best ensembles ever captured on film! (Did I mention a Robert De Niro small part as well?)
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.
It’s all at once a whirlwind of authentic, gaudy, opulent 1970s fashion and design with so many absolute surprise moments and hysterics. It will most certainly WIN the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Also should get nominations for Best Picture, Director, Makeup/Hairstyling, and possible Production Design & Editing (along with nominations for the cast), American Hustle is unquestionably one the year’s best films (if not THE best film).