American Hustle (United States, 2013)

December 17, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
American Hustle Poster

By cannibalizing the casts of his previous two movies, director David O. Russell has come up with his third consecutive winner. American Hustle, very loosely based on late 1970s "ABSCAM" sting, takes its cues from Boogie Nights both in terms of how it uses music and in the way it recreates the era. The film is also darkly funny and, although the background is a scandal that headlined news reports across the world, Russell never loses focus on the small group of characters at the center of his story.

American Hustle is all about cons: small-time operations by under-the-radar crooks, government-sponsored scams, and twists where David bamboozles Goliath. The characters in the film are almost never themselves - they're in disguise, teasing elaborately groomed hair, using fake accents, donning someone else's clothing, or concocting fantasies in which they're the central figure. Yet, in spite of the subject matter's seediness (ABSCAM resulted in the corruption convictions of a U.S. senator, six members of the House of Representatives, and several lesser politicians), Russell's script is laced with wit.

Events transpire primarily in the late 1970s before advances in technology and global awareness would make this sort of elaborate FBI-sponsored swindle impractical. American Hustle begins by introducing viewers to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), two lovers who make money by preying on the greed of their clients. Eventually, they become big enough to attract notice and are caught in the net of agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). But Richie doesn't want to put Irving and Sydney in jail - he wants to use them to help him climb the FBI's corporate ladder by capturing some big fish - Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey; congressmen; and maybe even some mobsters. Without recourse, Irving and Sydney go along with the scheme. While it unfolds, Sydney is pulled out of Irving's orbit and into Richie's and Irving finds his ambitions curtailed by the actions of his ditzy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

Narratively, the first half of American Hustle has a rambling, unfocused approach as it incorporates flashbacks, voiceover narratives, and other storytelling devices to introduce the characters, bring them together, and get things moving in a straightforward trajectory. The movie's closing act is the most conventional part of Russell's tale in that it unfolds in a manner that will be familiar to connoisseurs of heist and con films. There's a little flavor of The Sting here, although the '70s Oscar winner was breezier and more upbeat than American Hustle.

Taking a page out of Paul Thomas Anderson's playbook, Russell uses era-appropriate pop tunes to establish the setting and provide jolts of energy to certain scenes. With a soundtrack that easily incorporates a dozen instantly recognizable '70s songs, American Hustle rolls from one theme to another, using the music to enhance scenes. One of the best films to use this technique in the past 20 years is Boogie Nights and, although American Hustle isn't quite on that level, it deserves consideration as a runner up.

Russell brings back Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook. Although the ensemble dream cast features five Oscar nominees (two winners - Lawrence and Bale), there are no standout performances. Bale, as is his style, gives his all to the project, having gained considerable weight to play the pot-bellied, balding Irving. Although none of the characters in American Hustle are easy to like, Bale's is the most sympathetic (or maybe merely "pathetic"). Amy Adams is at her sultry best, showing more cleavage than in any previous outing - you gotta love that late-'70s fashion. Bradley Cooper is occasionally overshadowed by his tightly curled hair and Jennifer Lawrence (despite sweeping through various early critics' awards) doesn't have much of substance to do. She has a couple of great scenes and the rest of the time she's playing a cartoon.

With American Hustle, Russell employs a fascinating inversion. The normal attitude of a movie about bribed government officials is one of sneering disdain. In this case, however, Russell makes the "corrupt" politicians laudable - they take the money not to line their pockets but to create and promote jobs for the citizens of New Jersey. And the way the FBI runs the sting isn't the clean, streamlined, well-planned operation one might expect. Russell has fun with all this.

American Hustle runs a little long with the strongest scenes occurring toward the end. Although the actors don't put on a clinic, they all provide worthwhile performances playing interesting characters, and there's a nice cameo thrown into the mix. Russell's name and his surehandedness helming the material could make American Hustle more of an Oscar contender than it might otherwise be. It's an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours but doesn't stand alongside some of 2013's best films.

American Hustle (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 2013-12-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1