American Hustle Review – Hellacious Hustle: The Art of a Con Movie

December 19, 2013

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Movie lovers, prepare to be gobsmacked. The art of the con meets the art of filmmaking in writer/director David O Russell’s spectacular latest release American Hustle, a movie that leaves you agog with the acting prowess displayed therein, and agog at how Russell finds a way to entertain so thoroughly using such a panoply of human train wrecks all careening towards each other and disaster at the same time. Cinema Siren was ready for a misstep. Can this director do no wrong?

Very loosely based on reality, the movie itself feels a bit like a con. To quote Freddie Mercury, “Is this the real life, or is it just fantasy?” In the opening titles we see “some of this actually happened”, but in the end credits, we get “this is a work of fiction”. Bits of the story follow the events of the late ‘70s FBI operation leading to the Abscam scandal that felled a senator, six congressmen, and a number of elected officials. The genius of American Hustle, however, is in the complex characterizations masterfully acted by some of the biggest acting heavyweights in Hollywood today. Full of intrigue, romance, humor and drama, it may be another of Russell’s genre busters, but true to form, it depends entirely on the complexity of human interaction.

Con man Irving Rosenfeld (a mildly repulsive and paunched out Christian Bale) and his razor sharp partner and lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, in a deceptively challenging, multilayered performance). posing as Lady Edith Greensly, a socialite jet setter, are fleecing marks desperate enough to believe $5000 in cash will get them an easy loan or help them get rich. They attempt to con the wrong man, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and wind up trapped working in an ever more convoluted sting operation that could get them all killed. Irving’s volatile wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is the wild card that could save or destroy them all. Her surface ditz belies an inner shrewdness that is at once seductive and dangerous. She is young, complicated, and terrifying.

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Leave it to Russell to not only build a story where all the characters have unique arcs, change, and make unexpected choices, but to offer two of the most complicated and fascinating female roles of the year. Amy Adams, immensely controlled and costumed in wrap dresses slit to the belly, struts and wraps her marks around her fingers, all the while with terror flickering in her eye. She is “just an Alburquerque girl wanting to be anything but who she is”, a re-invention, doing anything to avoid disillusionment, devouring whatever the late 70s version of “more” is, but continually finding that same emptiness inside herself. It is a tour-de-force that requires far more inner construction as an actress than viewers might think, and she should be applauded. Sadly, she has to share the screen with Jennifer Lawrence playing the far more flamboyant role of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, an emotional tornado that sucks everyone into her vortex of disaster while ever playing, as Irving calls her, “The Picasso of passive aggressive karate”. To say Lawrence steals every moment she’s onscreen is really saying something, considering the company she’s keeping. Her vacillating New York accent notwithstanding, her no-holds-barred performance is astounding. Cinema Siren kids you not.

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The men of American Hustle show the full spectrum of manliness, machismo, and questionable morality. Christian Bale somehow finds a way to make thick glasses and a gut seductive, allowing the audience to genuinely understand why two drop dead gorgeous women would be at his beck and call. Bradley Cooper keeps the audience with him even through his increasingly ill advised decisions and attempted manipulations. Jeremy Renner as stand up guy Carmine Polito, who gets trapped in the escalating situation by wrongly befriending Rosenfeld, also does some scene stealing with his mix of volatility and nice guy demeanor. Robert De Niro has a memorable cameo – the audience would have to be asleep not to find frightening and enjoyable.

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Russell is known for his musical passion, and his considered and careful choices of songs used in his films. American Hustle is not only no exception, it raises the bar, in that they are used, it would seem, to articulate the general freneticism and the desperate need for distraction from the minutiae of daily life, or from attaining “the American Dream”. Here, with these characters, as with many living life in the late ’70s, it seems so close and at the same time ever in the far distance. At various moments, a blast of Donna Summer, ELO, or Wings all but envelops the audience in a wall of sound, aurally sweeping them up into the same spirit of “damn it, i’m going to make this work or die trying”, offering what feel like cocaine derived bursts of energy. The musical metaphors work in spades and always at the perfect time in the perfect way.

Meanwhile, Cinema Siren would be remiss not to mention the elephant in the room…this movie could have been all about the hair. Bale’s Rosenfeld has an elaborate comb-over that seems to require delicate balance of glue, spirit gum, and some kind of brown birds’ nest material. Bradley Cooper dons a do of tight deliberate curls, and Jeremy Renner effects a side parted ’70s pompadour with at least 6 inches of height. Amy Adams’ long wavy tresses rival any ever offered by Jaclyn Smith or Farrah Fawcett on Charlie’s Angels. We can almost smell the Aqua Net. Lawrence’s Rosalyn wears that throwback 1890s Gibson Girl bun seen on all the Halston models in the pages of ‘70s Vogue. Stylists will be in heaven. So will anyone who loves polyester and décolletage.

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Late in viewing the film, when all the events of the film are starting to build on to each other, one wonders how it can possibly end without a bloodbath worthy of any Scorsese film. The fact that every character has seduced a desire inside audience members to see them survive and score whatever tiny slice of the American Dream they believe they deserve, is a testament to largely the actors and the nuance they bring the script.

It may be true that American Hustle is a bit messy, a bit murky. Genre-busting is never tidy. I contend, rightly or wrongly, that Russell means for it to get that way. Rosalyn may be “the picasso”, but as characterizations go, David O Russell is the maestro of the hot mess. How can these folks colliding not leave the audience feeling a bit knocked around? We are left walking away from the 2 hours and 9 minutes remembering an ensemble that breathes life into roles to which they will forever be connected. This is a movie for quoting, one that can’t be switched off when discovered playing on TV late at night. It will be the same kind of guilty pleasure Irving finds in going back to Sydney over and over.

The core of this movie is about the American Dream, and how it can be less an inspiration to be the best you can be and more an insidious and addictive drug leading to desperate and often questionable choices or actions. American Hustle is a celebration of excess, a cautionary tale showing the destructive power of greed, and a masterclass of great acting, and it is delirious, dizzy fun.

Watch this video review of the film complete with interviews with the cast of the film, courtesy of CinemaSiren.


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