American Hustle (2013) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and brief violence
Running Time: 138 min.

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Elisabeth Rohm, Robert De Niro, Jack Huston, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Paul Herman
Small role: Colleen Camp, Jack Jones
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell

Review published December 20, 2013

Mostly set in 1978, American Hustle stars Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace, The Dark Knight Rises) as Irving Rosenfeld, a dry-cleaning business owner who is a con man on the side, mostly dealing with shady loans and counterfeit art.  Despite his estranged marriage with the manipulative, loose-screw lush Rosalyn (Lawrence, Catching Fire), Rosenfeld meets and woos the lovely stripper, Sydney Prosser (Adams, Man of Steel), who is initially off-put upon learning of his unsavory occupation, yet comes to not only accept it, but also become a full partner in crime.  The couple are nailed by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook), who cuts a deal with them; they can get off the hook of their current charges if they agree to assist with getting bigger, badder fish (politicians and underworld figures) to make illegal deals on videotape.  The first big target is a mayor in New Jersey named Carmine Polito (Renner, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), a popular local politician who is finagled into a possible bribery indictment by the trio, which opens the door for them to nab more powerful politicians, and more dangerous, criminal elements.  But are they in too deep to escape when it all comes crashing down?

The film starts with the blurb that, "Some of this actually happened", which is a coy way to say that what we're about to watch is a fictional story set in the backdrop of events that actually happened to other people. Bale is channeling Mel Weinberg, a real-life con artist (complete with beard, comb-over and belly -- though the real Weinberg was in his 50s, and his (then) wife not much younger) hired by the Feds to go after crooked politicians in power. The Carmine Polito story resembles that of Camden, NJ mayor Angelo Errichetti, which I could elaborate on if not for the fact that the comparisons may constitute spoilers for those who are not aware of the Abscam (aka, "Arab scam", because an Arab sheikh had been used as a ruse as a private investor) sting operation. However, the sting operation was indeed what is real about the film, as well as their collaboration with a con man. Even if the character personalities themselves are manufactured, the use of the Abscam operation as the backdrop of showcasing duplicitous lives is ingeniously inspired. It's a dog-eat-dog world where everyone has an agenda for getting ahead.

Some will make comparisons to the early, rough-around-the-edges works of Scorsese, with its mob tie-ins, occasional voice-over narrations, and nonstop Seventies' soundtrack, and that's a high compliment. It's fitting that this film would be released into theaters just a week before Scorsese himself unleashed his own retro-style flick about people gaming the system for their own ends, The Wolf of Wall Street. It's a film that runs more on characters than on story, but once we're invested in these fully rounded people, we're hooked in to see just where it goes. When things get tough, the tension is quite palpable, as David O. Russell (The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees) gets in tight on the characters' faces when their every word may mean the difference between freedom or prison, or even survival or death. It's interesting to note that both cops and crooks utilize the same underhanded tactics in order to conduct their business, though the law enforcement angle delivers credit and accolades in place of money; yet, both operate on the accumulation of power and influence.

Although originally titled, "American Bullshit", American Hustle works quite well as a title, as it describes not only the fact that the protagonists are out to hustle (aka, con) a bunch of high rollers in the community, but also must hustle (aka, make haste) to make sure they stay in the clear. And, of course, there is the late 1970s tie-in, in which people would regularly 'do the hustle' on the dance floors of the discos that were so popular in this era. As befitting the title, there are twists and turns in the story, though some of them are easily surmised.  However, guessing where things are going next likely won't ruin the enjoyment of this character-first film. This is a movie about illusion, from the opening scene of Irving doing everything he can to cover the fact that he doesn't have a full head of hair, to the final shots -- everyone is hiding their duplicitous agenda underneath their own B.S., and that's also what makes trusting each other so hard to do. And yet, they must continue to play their roles, so that they can finally come to a position that has been eluding them their whole lives -- one in which they can finally be themselves and live their lives the way they've always wanted to.

Christian Bale is brilliant in the role as Irving, gaining about 40 lbs. for the role and sporting a comb-over in which he loses himself completely in a role yet again. Bale plays his part in the most understated of the five main roles, and yet we can always sense that underneath the troubled eyes and furrowed brow that he grows to believe they are all getting in way in over their head. Without the protection of being in law enforcement himself, he, and the people he loves in his life, are the most vulnerable to retribution. As the fish being lured into their net increase in size, so do the amount of moving parts, and he's especially uneasy when wife Rosalyn becomes an unwitting participant in the major play, as she is unpredictable and doesn't always operate in the best interests of anyone but herself.

The ever-fearless Lawrence is absolutely fantastic in the spark-plug role of Rosalyn, and like Bale, she gets lost in a character that feels wholly unique in the world of movies. Adams is also a marvel playing the most duplicitous role in the film. Is she in love with Irving and wants to make him jealous by flirting with DiMaso, or has she really moved on? We're never quite sure, as she plays both men against each other in ways that shifts advantages for reasons that are probably only clear in her mind. With equal parts sexiness and vulnerability, Adams is a powerhouse.

If I could recast, however, I might find a better choice for DiMaso than Bradley Cooper. Cooper is an actor I happen to like, and he already has an established rapport with Russell (in fact, most of the main players come from Russell's last two films), but he seems to exist outside of the grit and grime of hard-liner FBI agents, and while he flashes the same acting chops as everyone else, he never really convinced me that he was the person he was playing.  It also doesn't help that a many of the film's digressions into scenes that don't quite mesh with the rest of the story involve DiMaso as the main character.  For such an exceedingly well-acted and adeptly directed film, it does occasionally become uneven in spots, given to bouts where it feels like it is starting to lose its way to the finish line.

Evem though some scenes come off as too cute for the film's own good (I'm thinking specifically about most scenes involving Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine) and an lip-synched performance tossed in featuring Lawrence), those are but minor potholes traversed by David O. Russell's supremely well-oiled machine, perhaps the finest movie of his esteemed career thus far. American Hustle is a film about sharks caught in a whirlpool, chasing each other to lay hold of a territory, all the while never cognizant that they're all likely to to be swallowed down into darkness together.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo