Wednesday, January 22, 2014

American Hustle

American Hustle (2013) Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence. Directed by David O. Russell. Screenplay by Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell. Produced by Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison. Run Time: 137 minutes. U.S.  Color.  Crime, Comedy, Drama.

With Awards season well under way and the Academy Awards looming, certain films are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the field. One film that seems to be on the rise is American Hustle, David O. Russell’s follow up to Silver Linings Playbook (2012). The film is one of nine nominated for Best Picture (amongst other awards) and many feel that American Hustle is one of the three with the best chance of winning the Oscar (the other two being 12 Years a Slave and Gravity).

Some of the film’s draw for me was that Russell works again with several cast members from Silver Linings Playbook, including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and, even though his name doesn’t appear in the credits, Robert De Niro. It is always a balancing act for a director/writer to work with the same actors over and over again. A better working relationship is developed, but you have to avoid it getting stale or becoming forced. That is not the case here.

The story is told against the backdrop of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation and the film promises that some of it actually happened. The audience is left to decide which part did. A less than Batman-looking Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a rather small-time conman, who bilks desperate men out of money for the promise, and only the promise, of helping them get access to more. Into his life comes Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). He falls in love with her and confesses what he does for a living. While he suspects she’s left him, in fact, she makes up a new persona, Lady Edith Greensly with alleged British banking contacts.

Their little scam continues until FBI Agent Richard “Richie” DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) leads a sting operation against them and arrests Sydney/Edith for fraud. In order to get charges dropped, Richie offers Irving a deal to help him make four arrests to clear Sydney. Once the deal is made, the sting grows to include Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is very interested in rebuilding Atlantic City back into a gambling hub. We also meet Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s a bit of ditz, but she somehow has out-conned Irving and he seems powerless to leave her for Sydney.

Richie is overly excited about the sting operation, so much so that he bullies his superior, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), and goes over his head to get the money and the trappings of wealth he needs for his sting to work. His enthusiasm and bullheadedness are to be his undoing before all is said and done.

Stories about cons can be hard to follow as you never know who to trust and who is telling the truth. This one isn’t that bad as long as you pay attention. There is a twist that you won’t see coming as the movie is very careful to reveal only what you need to know when it wants you to know it.

Who's conning who?

In the film, there is a lot of narration, utilized to speed through exposition and backstory as well as to provide an epilogue to the tale. I liked the idea of more than one character providing narration so we see the inner thoughts of both Irving and Sydney, as this is really a film about the two of them.

The characters are for the most part based on actual people. I will admit that I have only a passing knowledge of the Abscam sting operation, so I don’t know how accurate these portrayals are, but that is not required knowledge to enjoy the film.

Tina Fey was correct when she quipped on the Golden Globes that American Hustle was originally called Explosion at the Wig Factory. This is a costume drama in many ways as apparently the 1970’s and 80’s require a lot of wide lapels, gold chains and hairpieces. But still the acting shines through and the cast is very strong.

The cast of American Hustle from left to right: Amy Adams,
Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence.

Christian Bale, once again, shows that he can act out of a Batman costume. His character is about as far away from the caped crusader as one can get. Amy Adams is very good as Irving’s lover, Sydney, but her acting isn’t quite as her costumes with their plunging necklines. Jeremy Renner, perhaps best known for his role as Hawkeye in TheAvengers, plays a believable down to earth, but corruptible man of the people.

Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld. 

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, are also in this film, but they have very little screen time together, so the allure of their reuniting in the film is not part of the plot. I found Cooper’s DiMaso to be a little over the top and Lawrence’s character almost seems like an afterthought. She comes into the film late and her character has more importance than her screen time would indicate.

As far as the supporting cast goes, Louis C.K. is also very good as the long suffering Stoddard Thorsen. His is a small part, but he really brings the character to life. Part of that is a story about ice-fishing that gives his Thorsen more depth. Even though he is uncredited, Robert De Niro makes a brief, but very menacing appearance as Victor Tellegio, a Miami-based mob boss. Perhaps it’s the gravitas De Niro brings to the role, having made a career playing toughs, but Tellegio definitely isn’t someone you’d want to cross let alone cross paths with.

Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen in American Hustle.

While I thought American Hustle was good, I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I did Silver Linings Playbook. The film shows Russell’s ability to tell well-crafted and very interesting stories and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to see what a good film is. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you think it’s the Best Picture from 2013. And of course, the Academy voters will have the last word.

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