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American Hustle (2013)

| December 27, 2013 | 0 Comments

“American Hustle” opens with the construction of an unfortunate hairpiece. A balding man looks in the mirror, works his comb-over before gluing his new hair in place. When the process is complete, the result looks – hey! – not so bad. It’s quite an intricate process. The careful application of these fake follicles represents, in a not-so-subtle way, the methods and application of almost everything that will happen for the next two hours, it’s all subterfuge. We are invited into the world of a group of con artists, some working together and some being scammed themselves. We see how they operate on their marks and on each other.

The application of the script, like that hairpiece, is convincing too. Writer-director David O. Russell and co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer have based their script on the FBI’s famous ABSCAM operation of the late 70s in which several high-level politicians were caught in an elaborate bribery sting. Russell is bold enough to open the movie with a title card that tells us that “Some of this actually happened,” which frees up the story to be juicy enough that it isn’t hindered by keeping the facts straight (actually, they’ve put together a story that is infinitely more interesting than the real thing). Their script weaves together the most fascinating con game since George Roy Hill’s “The Sting” and the most dizzying vortex of 70s polyester and butterfly collars since “Boogie Nights.”

None of this would mean anything, of course, if we didn’t care about the characters, starting with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, the one with the hairpiece), a Brooklyn-born business man who has made his bones with a string a dry cleaning stores all around Long Island. It’s all a front, of course, behind the scenes he dabbles in fake art and loan fraud. With a bowling ball-shaped stomach and unfortunate hair, this is Bale’s best performance since his Oscar win for “The Fighter”, playing a guy who excels at the con but can’t keep his personal life together.

His passage to the big time begins when he meets Syndey Prosser (Amy Adams), a sweet and sexy gal from Albuquerque who started as a stripper and has climbed her way up the style ladder using a mixture of what she’s got upstairs and what she’s got up front. There’s something vague about Sydney that we can’t quite put our finger on. Most of her cons involve slipping into the persona of Lady Edith, a Brit with serious banking connections. Her alliance with Irving takes his con games to new heights. They become, not only partners in crime but also lovers despite the predicament of Irving’s wife Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a ball of passive-aggressive insecurity wrapped up in big hair and fake nails. She knows about his double-dealings, and has him by the you-know-what.

So too, does FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, sporting a very Brady perm), who nabs Irving and Sydney and employs them for a sting operation to catch congressmen taking bribes. What happens next cannot be revealed here. What has been revealed only serves as the set up. Each player has a role and must play his part, especially when part of the sting involves a meeting with a blood-thirsty gangster (Robert De Niro) who has skills they don’t anticipate. De Niro is, of course, an old pro at these kinds of stories and brings a kind of scary tension to the proceedings.

The performances here are brilliant. Bale make his unattractive character work by means of quick thinking and experience at the con. Cooper comes in on the game and gets addicted to the thrill, even putting his own career on the line. Lawrence, as she did last year in Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook”, shows a new side of herself as an unstable woman who comes into the game with a dangerous heir of unpredictability. At several points, she stands on the edge of blowing the whole deal.

But the best performance belongs to Amy Adams as a woman who understands the con game better than anyone else. You can always see her thinking, sizing people up, working the situation only moments before it is her turn at center stage. Moving from the persona of Sydney to Edith and back again, there are moments when we question whether she has forgotten which is real (are we being conned?). Adams’ single best scene takes place in a quiet, almost whispered conversation as her two accents alternate in the same sentence. It is a remarkable moment that never feels like a stunt. It is worthy of another Oscar nomination.

What is refreshing is that the movie never feels slicked out. Everyone is written as a human being with massive personality flaws. They are damaged people before the con starts and aren’t improved once it gets underway. Russell makes us care about these people; otherwise the script would just be all mechanics. You like these people despite what they are doing. They are placed into a movie that moves and vibrates with color and madness. The irony, of course, is that while they are busy risking their lives to steal money, we are aware that they only have to wait five years for the Wall Street boom of the 1980s and they could take it legally.

The soundtrack features songs from everybody from Donna Summer, to Duke Ellington to Steely Dan to Paul McCartney and Wings. The music plays as a Greek chorus, not just a period identifier. The music goads these disaffected people, all of whom are searching for something better, and are willing to risk their lives to get it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized