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Entries in American Hustle [2013] (1)

Wednesday
Dec182013

American Hustle (2013)

Oh, Baby! My Heart is Full of Love and Desire for Truth

If the cast of The Jersey Shore were actually talented performers who put on a disco-dinner-theatre production of Goodfellas, it might look something like American Hustle. David O. Russell's latest boils over with actors at the top of their game indulging in passionate screaming matches, betrayal, and enough polyester and bad hair to blanket the Earth in darkness. It's so bonkers, I couldn't decide until half-way through if I was watching a bad movie or one of the most original, hilarious, and gripping of the year. It's definitely the latter.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a minor NYC dry-cleaning magnate who sells forged art and false loan guarantees on the side. He falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who shows up in the Big Apple with an eye to creating a glamorous persona for herself. She adopts an inconsistent British accent and joins Irving in upping his loan scams--in which they promise to connect financially desperate people with moneyed interests for a non-refundable five-grand fee (hey, they can't help it if said interests back out at the last second). The venture goes well, until they stumble into the web of FBI agent Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper).

DeMaso's thirst for justice is almost as strong as his desire to make a name for himself (think of him as Gotham's Off-white Knight). He blackmails Irving and Sydney into helping him make four busts related to either art fraud or fake certificates of deposit. Things get sticky when DeMaso gets a taste for the bigger fish waiting just above Irving's rung on the corruption ladder. He skirts bureau policy and changes the rules of the group's arrangement on the fly so he can pursue crooked politicians and the mob. His main target, a New Jersey mover-and-shaker named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) inadvertently becomes a dear friend to Irving, resulting in conflicted emotions about the scam-within-a-scam-within-a-scam.

From here, the film gets darker, weirder, and funnier as Russell and co-writer Eric Singer perfect a tone I haven't seen work to this degree since Boogie Nights. This is a movie for people who love movies, and who've grown cynical, thanks to predictable, big-budget Oscar bait. If you're like me, you hear about a 70s period piece involving street hustlers and mafiosi, and instantly assume American Hustle is going to wind down with a Scorsese-style blood-bath. Russell and Singer know this, I think, and take great pains to subvert our expectations at every turn (just as Russell did with the boxing-movie sub-genre in 2010's The Fighter). It's impossible to guess how things will turn out; best yet, the crazy-good performances by everyone involved make the dense story's outcome practically irrelevant.

I'll admit, the first time I watched American Hustle, Bale's New York accent was a stumbling block. It sounded like a series of voice exercises based on repeated viewings of The Sopranos. And the flashback/flash-forward structure (complete with voice-over descriptions of a childhood marked by petty crime) gave me plenty of Goodfellas déjà vu. After a second viewing, though, I appreciated what the filmmakers did in crafting a universe of absurd unreality. As Irving's crazed, shut-in wife (yeah, this guy's a real piece of work), Jennifer Lawrence also teeters on the edge of caricature. But watch her build a portrait of genuine desperation, psychosis, and entitled idiocy, and be amazed.

These performers' flamboyance bookends the rest of the cast nicely, allowing them to shine in ways that will surprise you. Cooper and Renner have never been better, continuing their streak of breaking away from their respective, bland pretty-boy and comic-book-hero roles that made them stars--and proving themselves as extremely talented actors. Renner, in particular, redefines the Corrupt Politician archetype by injecting sympathy and implying danger--which may or may not be a mask for the insecurity of earnestness. Louis C.K. also pops up as DeMaso's put-upon boss, and delivers one of the best non-Woody-Allen Woody Allen routines I've seen. I have nothing to say about Amy Adams, because she just continues to be Amy Adams: a mesmerizing chameleon who knocks every role out of the park (which can be distracting, but not in this case).

The last remarkable performance belongs to a legendary actor whom I won't name. I had no idea he was in the movie (and, based on the theatre-ful of shocked laughter at the critics' screening I attended, neither did anyone else). If you've managed to remain unspoiled by this lovely second-act surprise, you're in for a real treat. Suffice it to say, this is an actor whose choices of late have been spotty at best--but in a single ten-minute scene he reminds us all why he's a legend of cinema.

I can't recommend American Hustle enough. It took a second viewing to truly appreciate how fantastic it is in every regard--mostly because I'm not used to having my expectations and assumptions so thoroughly challenged and then destroyed. Great-looking, great sounding 70s period pieces are a dime a dozen, especially when backed by a studio that can make every detail seem authentic. But it takes genuine visionaries to resist running strange and imperfect events such as these through the Tinseltown Screenplay Sausage Maker--which regularly turns out bogus, suspiciously tidy "based on true stories" pictures. Russell succeeds in making a film that plays like a soap opera, soars like a fantasy, and grips the audience with a desire to know more about these bizarre, charismatic characters. American Hustle isn't just lively, it's alive.