December 10, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “American Hustle”


AMERICAN HUSTLE:  Buy A Ticket – David O. Russell’s Epic Romp Is a Party That Goes On Till Dawn

Even though it’s concerned with con men, low-lifes and deluded losers, AMERICAN HUSTLE is the happiest movie in town.  The co-writer/director David O. Russell seems intoxicated with life’s utter craziness and the joy of moviemaking; he’s throwing a party, and everyone–actors, designers, technicians, and the audience, too–is invited.  Hustle may not be Russell’s neatest or most coherent work, compared to the more genre-based The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook, but it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of flim-flam, heart and farce–just thinking about it afterward can keep you happy for days.

The story takes off from the 1970s ABSCAM scandal, where the FBI fooled an assortment of politicians into taking bribes from a purported Arab sheik, taping the transactions and then arresting them for corruption.  In real life, the feds used an actual con man named Melvin Weinberg to help them design the scam.  Reportedly, Eric Warren Singer’s original script was a fact-based docudrama about the operation, but when Russell came on board, he did a Page 1 rewrite that fictionalized the tale, turning it into an epic romp about reinvention and what it means to live–in more ways than one–the dream.  The movie’s version of Weinberg is Irving Rosenfeld, who’s played by Christian Bale as you’ve never seen him before.  Bale has remade himself physically for other roles, but always in a rigorous, ascetic way–starving himself for The Machinist and Rescue Dawn, bulking up with muscle for the Dark Knight films.  For Hustle, he’s put on slabs of weight, and he wears an epic combover (his arrangement of the follicles he has left is a little movie unto itself).  This isn’t a Raging Bull weight gain, meant to indicate sloth and inner rot; Irving is a go-getter who’s happy in his big body.  His legitimate business is a dry cleaners, but his heart is in his scams, taking suckers for forged artworks and investments in companies that don’t exist.  Irving is married (more on that below), but along the way, he falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whose grift is to put on an English accent and fake upper-class expertise.  She’s so immersed in her cons that she doesn’t seem to even realize when her phony persona is on–they’re made for each other.

Irving and Sydney make beautiful crooked music together until they’re caught by ambitious FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who recruits them into the movie’s version of ABSCAM.  Richie, who labors on his hair like Irving, wearing tight curlers at night to give himself a perm, and who lives with his mother (he’s the lawman version of Rupert Pupkin) is a hustler too, even if he carries a badge, and maybe a more ruthless one than Irving and Sydney.  He’s convinced that this operation will make his name at the Bureau.  His main target is the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a genuinely caring but dopey politician who takes the dirty money to help his constituents.  This quartet is a powderkeg of untrustworthiness, and thrown into it is the A-bomb that is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a hellcat introduced halfway through the movie who knows all about her husband’s adultery and has no interest in controlling her emotions, words or actions.

All of the actors seem to be having a glorious time.  In a long career that started in childhood, Bale has almost never played comedy–he rarely even plays likable–and he turns out to to have a lighter touch than one would have imagined possible.  The movie’s revelation is Amy Adams, who builds on the hard-boiled persona Russell let her unveil for the first time in The Fighter to create a full-blooded, sexy, complicated character–and the astounding 1970s fashions she wears don’t hurt.  Jennifer Lawrence, again playing a role that logic would say is ludicrously too old for her, is as spellbinding as she was in Silver Linings Playbook, using her dead-on timing to take full advantage of all the craziness Russell gives her without ever losing Rosalyn’s humanity.  At one point or another, just about everyone in the movie wants to be with Rosalyn or kill her–sometimes at the same time–and she never leaves any doubt that she’s worth either one.  Cooper, playing a hyper variation of his Silver Linings role, is hilariously dim-witted.  Jeremy Renner, the movie’s only central newcomer to the Russell ensemble, is endearingly goofy, a nice guy who can’t figure out how he got so lost.  The supporting cast is decked out with splendid appearances by Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Jack Huston and a terrific cameo by Robert DeNiro.

The designers of American Hustle may be as much its stars as the actors.  Michael Wilkinson’s period costumes could leave you slack-jawed with their audaciousness (the hair and make-up departments also deserve major props), and Judy Becker’s production design is as varied and detailed as vintage Sidney Lumet.  Linus Sandgren’s mobile photography is also reminiscent of the great urban movies of the 70s, and although you might think that by now, every 70s song has been done to death in some movie or other, there are inspired choices in the pieces selected by music supervisor Susan Jacobs.

In the end, though, American Hustle belongs to its maestro, David O. Russell.  His work here is reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s in Boogie Nights and Scorsese’s in Goodfellas, giant canvases of characters, any one of whom would be interesting enough to hold its center (here, they alternate the voice-over narration).  Russell, who’s had an uncompleted, unreleased comedy about crooked politicians called Nailed lying around for years (depending on which version you believe, he abandoned it mid-production or the producers took it away from him), seems like he’s bubbling to regale us with his tall tales about these two-faced, self-destructive, half-crazy protagonists.  Even when the pace of American Hustle falters, and the plotting becomes thin (although the ending is very satisfying), Russell orchestrates it all with love and panache.  It’s the first time he’s combined the anarchic comedy of his early independent movies like Flirting With Disaster and Spanking the Monkey with his more recent mastery of craft and scale in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and he’s put together one of the best movies of a very good year.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."