Sunday, December 22, 2013

Movie Review: "American Hustle"

Certain directors have certain strengths. There are those who specialize in effects-laden movies (like Michael Bay), those with the exceptional ability to craft a story (like Peter Jackson or early Steven Spielberg), those who create dreamy, thought-provoking, even confusing films (like Terrence Malick or David Lynch), and those who might excel at one or more of these, but also have the ability to coax phenomenal performances from their actors.

Even as early as Flirting with Disaster, David O. Russell proved himself a director worthy of classification into the latter category. While for the most part, his movies have tremendously compelling and entertaining stories, they're characterized by some exceptional performances as well. His last two movies, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, received a total of seven acting Oscar nominations between them, and three wins—Christian Bale and Melissa Leo for the former film, Jennifer Lawrence for the latter.

American Hustle reunites the director with Bale and Lawrence, as well as Amy Adams (Oscar-nominated for The Fighter) and Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro (both nominated for Silver Linings Playbook). The performances Russell elicits from his actors are almost uniformly fantastic, but the twists and turns of the plot and the excellent dialogue make this movie one of the best I've seen all year, and easily one of my favorite of Russell's movies.

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale, with a serious paunch and a horrific comb-over) is a small-time grifter. The owner of several dry cleaning stores, he makes most of his money scamming people looking for quick loans, and selling stolen or forged art. He's also trapped in a marriage to the manipulative and unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, a force of nature), who is flighty and insecure and smarter than you think, but she knows Irving married her to be a father to her young son, and makes the most of treading on that weakness.

At a party, Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, never sexier), desperate to make her way in the world. The two troubled, not-quite-solid souls are immediately drawn to each other, and Irving has dreams of starting a new life with Sydney. And when he lets her in on his real line of business, Sydney is all to happy to join the scam—she reinvents herself (complete with English accent) as Lady Edith Greensley, who has "royal banking connections." The team achieve great success, even though Sydney knows Irving may never leave Rosalyn.

But when they get nabbed by detective Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, 70s perm and all), who is all too hungry to make a name for himself within the FBI, DiMaso quickly identifies that the bond between Irving and Sydney/Edith may be more tenuous than it looks, and does everything he can to weaken it. He quickly falls for Sydney/Edith, and you wonder if she feels the same way. He forces the pair into working for him, setting people up that he can then arrest. The ultimate scam they set up seems too good to be true—convincing Camden Mayor Carmine Pulido (Jeremy Renner) to take a bribe from a fake sheik in order to rebuild Atlantic City. Richie decides that's not good enough—he wants the scam to entrap some members of Congress as well. (This is based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s.) And that's when things start to go completely haywire.

Bale is believably desperate as a con artist trying to have his cake and eat it too. He so quickly immerses himself into the character's appearance that you forget this isn't some aging actor forgoing his vanity for a choice part—this is a 39-year-old Englishman playing a suburban New Jersey Jew. This is the second excellent performance Bale has turned in this year, the first being Out of the Furnace, which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

Amy Adams has turned in strong performances over the years, and has four Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations to show for it. But you've never seen this combination of fiery bravado and painful insecurity that she embodies in this character, and I just couldn't get over how sexy she looked throughout the film, since her characters are usually much more low-key. A number of actresses turned in Oscar-worthy performances this year, and while I don't know if Adams will make the cut for a nomination, it's definitely deserved. She's just that good.

Cooper's character is tightly wound, power-hungry, and generally unlikeable, quite a contrast from the character he played in Russell's last movie, Silver Linings Playbook. He sees Sydney/Edith as the answer to his prayers both professionally and personally, and gets caught up in where he thinks their scam will take them. His Silver Linings Playbook co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, is absolutely fantastic in this movie. Her role is smaller than the others, but every time she's onscreen you can't take your eyes off her. Funny, insecure, desperate, backstabbing, needy, and more in control than you think she is, if Lawrence hadn't won an Oscar last year, I'd think she was a shoo-in this year.

While the movie takes a little time to gather steam, I totally captivated my attention, and I wasn't sure how the plot would resolve itself. Russell perfectly captured the 1970s setting (a segment with a microwave oven is particularly funny) and the film has a reckless 1970s-like sensibility. At times funny, at times suspenseful, at times emotional, I thought American Hustle was an excellent film, tremendously well-acted, and a worthy opponent of 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars this year.

1 comment:

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