Saturday, March 15, 2014

American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham 
Running Time: 138 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

My immediate reaction after the final credits rolled on American Hustle was that it was a "fun time." But I can't help but think whether that response would been different had I not known the film received ten Oscar nominations, including all four acting categories and Best Picture. Almost needless to say, expectations were pretty high for what ends up being the weakest film in David O. Russell's comeback trilogy, which includes The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. While much more of a mixed bag than either, what's most surprising is how light and fluffy it is. It's basically an all-out comedic farce that's more entertaining than expected, but also far less substantial. It's loosely based on a real FBI Abscam sting operation in the 1970's but it isn't a biographical drama of any sort and certainly won't be mistaken for Argo anytime soon. The script almost seems to be making a complete mockery of the story which hardly matters since the real draw here is the acting, with costuming and (sometimes overbearing) soundtrack choices trailing not too far behind. With a less talented director and cast it's easy to imagine this being a disaster. Actually, it's still kind of a disaster. Just a really wild and fun one.

It's 1978 when con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party in New Jersey and the two embark on a personal and professional relationship in which Sydney (posing as English aristocrat "Lady Edith Greensly") start running loan scam. When their latest mark turns out to be undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they're recruited by him to help with four stings in exchange for their release. But Sydney has other plans, getting romantically close to Richie to manipulate him as a jealous Irving stands on the sidelines. How much of this plan and her feelings morph into reality is a question that hovers in the air up until the end. Richie's biggest sting involves entrapping Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who's attempting to raise funds to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. This sets in motion a convoluted plot involving a fake Arab sheikh, a secret wire transfer and the mob. But Irving's most dangerous problem is his stay-at- home wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a certifiable loose cannon who's no dummy. She knows something's up, and that knowledge could tear this operation and their family apart.

Remember that scene in The Wolf of Wall Street when Jordan Belfort turns to the camera and tells us he did a lot of illegal stuff but won't waste time boring us with the details? That's American Hustle in a nutshell. If there were a pop quiz on all the double crosses, fake-outs or even just the basic mechanics of the plot, it's an exam many wouldn't pass. And yet Russell manages to make it completely beside the point, instead focusing on the interplay between these wild characters, each seemingly crazier than the next. Clearly, the major plotline has less to do with Abscam than the love triangle involving Irving, Sydney and Richie, even if there are points where we doubt it can be considered a love triangle since the characters are all playing each other. The whole movie functions as one giant scam with everyone wearing masks at various points.

The two best performances come belong to the women, with Adams showing a side of herself as an actress we've never quite seen before, turning in her most intense work since The Fighter. Tough, but emotionally damaged goods, Sydney knows she's battling for more than to just stay out of jail by pulling off this scam. She wants prominence in Irving's life, ahead of his wife and son and is willing to use the hapless Agent DiMaso to do it. If some people are smarter than they look, Richie DiMaso is definitely not one of those people, falling for Sydney's hustle (and cleavage baring attire) hook, line, and sinker. He's also somehow target a legitimately honest politician and all-around great guy for his sting. In fact, Renner makes Carmine so selfless and likable in what should be the sleaziest of roles, that it's  impossible for the audience not to resent DiMaso for deceiving him. But Cooper gives him this helplessly pathetic quality of a man struggling to move up the bureau ladder and win a woman he thinks he's in love with, but really doesn't know at all. His hapless superior (played hilariously by Louis C.K.) is literally the only character who is worse off or commands less respect.

Holding the whole film (and his hairpiece) together is Bale, the real brains behind the operation, which isn't saying much. With a hideous wardrobe and a huge gut, few would be able to recognize the actor, and when they do, even fewer would believe he was capable of being this funny. So misguided and self-absorbed, Irving destroys the one relationship he has that means anything to him: His friendship with Carmine. It's possibly the only scam he's ever felt guilty about.  He spends most of the movie in a complete panic, as would anyone married to Jennifer Lawrence's Roselyn, the only character not at all like the rest.

On paper, Lawrence again seems completely miscast in a role meant for an older actress, only to respond by stealing the movie with a performance that starts as fully comedic before moving into some darker territory by the last act. In a picture where it's tough to take anything or anyone seriously, she uses limited screen time to turn what could easily have been a one joke character into a real force deserving of audience sympathy. That's a tight rope to walk and while all the hype and praise surrounding Lawrence has been exhausting, she proves again with her work that it's deserved. Her intense sing-a-long to Wings' "Live and Let Die" is a particular standout. Unfortunately, an uncredited Robert DeNiro turns in a comedic cameo as--you guessed it--a mobster. Ugh.  He also appears at just the point where the film starts getting a little overstuffed, making his shoehorned arrival feel especially unnecessary.

While it's clear Russell has a love for the period and certain details are deadly accurate, there's rarely any doubt he enjoys laughing at it also. As do we. If he was going for a Scorsese vibe, what transpires on screen often comes across as a comedic spoof of that. Call it "Scorsese Lite." Was that intentional? Does it even matter? All I know is that the whole thing is a lot funnier than most would have you believe. About halfway through you just forget everything and revel in the zany antics of these characters and enjoyable performances. If the developments were treated more seriously it might have been a better movie, but I'm not sure it would have been nearly as entertaining or interesting. This is about watching talented actors at the top of their game successfully disappearing into their crazy roles. Even the characters seem to forget about their own story on occasion. American Hustle might be all over the place, but it's most successful when not taking itself too seriously and functioning as a bizarre character study. Luckily, that's most of the time.    

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