American Hustle Crime

From the Feet Up Film Review: American Hustle

December 20, 2013Ben MK

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Everyday they're hustlin', hustlin', hustlin'

By Ben Mk

The Grifters. Catch Me if You Can. Matchstick Men. Hollywood's long-standing fascination with con artists translates to a laundry list of films, and now you can add the latest film from The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell to that growing list. For American Hustle, Russell re-teams with his stars from those two films -- Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence -- for a thoroughly entertaining romp through the world of feds, cons and corruption, set in 1978 New York.

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time grifter with a heart problem and (as Amy Adams' character puts it) a "rather elaborate" combover. Growing up in the Bronx, the son of a glass salesman whom he watched "get taken" one too many times, Irving's learned to hustle to survive. For him, that means running a less-than-legitimate loan operation, where he routinely defrauds customers of five-thousand dollars apiece, while operating a legitimate dry cleaning business to keep up appearances. Despite being married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a real housewife of New Jersey who's quick to shift the blame for bad things and accept the credit for everything else, he can't help but fall in love when the alluring Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) enters his life. A former exotic dancer from New Mexico, Sydney shares much in common with Irving -- his love for Duke Ellington, for one, and his willingness to do anything to survive. And even though he isn't the most physically attractive man, she finds herself attracted to Irving's air of confidence. The two soon form a partnership and a company, calling themselves "London Associates", in honor of the fake British accent Sydney puts on for their marks. The pair are on a roll -- that is, until one day, when Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) walks into their office. But Richie isn't just another mark; he's a federal agent looking to make a name for himself, and Irving and Sydney are cornered. With the threat of prosecution hanging over their heads, they agree to help the FBI make four high-profile bribery busts in exchange for their freedom -- a decision that ends up straining the limits of their relationship and making them targets for the mob, after the trio set their sights on Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

It's impossible to take your eyes off the incredible ensemble cast; and, for the most part, all of the actors are playing against type. As Bruce Wayne / Batman in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy (and even in his most recent film, Out of the Furnace), Bale has often played physically dominating characters. But here, he's an out of shape slouch who's a bit of a loser -- even though, at heart, he's not really a bad guy. Likewise, Amy Adams -- whom you can usually find in more clean-cut roles -- plays a sexpot who flaunts her sexuality and isn't afraid to use it as a tool to get what she wants. As Irving's wife, Jennifer Lawrence's character is more in line with her role as Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook than Katniss in The Hunger Games series -- unpredictable and unstable. Bradley Cooper, the usual epitome of cool in most of his films, is less than cool here; as Richie, he's more of a pretender and an egomaniac; he doesn't just cross the line to get what he wants, he stomps all over it. Finally, there's Jeremy Renner as Carmine, an ambitious, if not somewhat naive, politician who seems to have only the best intentions even though he doesn't always go about achieving them in the smartest way. Rounding out the supporting cast are Louis (let me tell you an ice fishing story) C.K. and Alessandro Nivola as a couple of fed bosses.

Kicking things off with the cheeky title card, "Some of this actually happened", the film makes no bones about being a fictionalized account of real events (in this case, the FBI's infamous "Abscam" sting operation). Although its principle characters are sourced from real life players in the op, liberties have been taken to embellish the story. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but, in this case, the latter is nothing less than end-to-end entertaining. Like a delirious amalgam of Casino and Boogie Nights, American Hustle immerses viewers in the sights and sounds of the era; and Russell seems to channel Scorsese through the recurring themes of power, greed, ego -- not to mention Bale's De Niro-esque narration. Still, that comparison doesn't highlight one of the film's most endearing qualities: its sense of humor. Thanks to its smartly written dialog, and especially thanks to the performances by Jennifer Lawrence and Louis C.K., American Hustle will leave audiences grinning from ear to ear -- which is certainly no small feat, considering the relatively serious subject matter on which it's based.

The Bottom Line

There's no con here -- American Hustle is the real deal: a sizzling piece of filmmaking that lights up the screen with sex, humor and potent performances. It's the complete package -- as Irving Rosenfeld would say, "From the feet up." From the chemistry of the cast to the sharp writing, it all gels together perfectly to form one of the best films of the year. It may sound trite to say it, but everyone should hustle to theaters to see it. [★★★★½]

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