American Hustle

Directed By: David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Michael Peña, and Robert De Niro

Director David O. Russell has a way of making authentically American films that's undeniable.  Just look at his two most recent films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.  What could be more American than boxing or the Philadelphia Eagles?  Russell's answer to that was apparently getting over on people.  In his latest film American Hustle, he gave us two con artists and a world of corruption for the taking.  That definitely sounds like the America I know.  To make matters better, Russell brought back many of the stars from his last two films and added Jeremy Renner to the mix as well.  All of this meant that we were in for one damn good movie this awards season.  Having now seen the film, I can say that American Hustle is a fine film, but it's not quite Best Picture material.

Con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a friend's party one day, and his world changes.  A sexy romance with this mysterious, alluring woman ensues.  It doesn't matter that he's married to the insane, fire-prone Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has adopted her son Danny as his own.  All that matters is that he has fallen hard for Sydney.  When Sydney takes on the persona Edith, begins using a fake British accent, and joins him in his con business touting her London banking connections, Irving finds his true partner in crime.  As the "London Associates", the two lovers get over on a whole lot of people, until they don't.  When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches them with their hands in the cookie jar, he arrests Sydney.  On the condition that Irving and Sydney help him solve several white collar crimes, Richie releases Sydney three days later.

As part of their coerced consultation with the Feds, Irving and Sydney introduce Richie to the world of hustling.  Though they're interested in tackling some lower level crimes, Richie sees Atlantic City as his big opportunity.  Carmine Polito (Renner), the former mayor of Camden and head of the New Jersey State Assembly, recently got the state to enact legislation allowing gambling there.  Because banks have opted not to fund the development of the city, Polito turns to other means to get the money he needs to inject life into that region of the state.  This is where Richie, Irving, and Sydney come into the picture.  With the FBI's approval, they're going to enter into negotiations with Polito and bring him down for obtaining the funding for Atlantic City through illicit means.  What these three fail to realize is that this is much bigger than they think.  They're beginning a dangerous game that will implicate both the mafia and members of Congress.  Meanwhile, Sydney learns that Irving is married and begins dating Richie.

Ice fishing is the dominant metaphor of the film.  Aside from being a comedic punch line throughout the movie, it really stands for getting in over one's head.  This is exactly what Richie DiMaso does when he gets in bed with two of the best con artists in the business in an ambitious quest to take down politicians and mobsters.  Following up two great films like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, one could easily see how David O. Russell could have gone ice fishing with American Hustle.  This doesn't happen, however.  My only quip with the film is that it's a little thin on substance and drama for an awards contender.  Beyond this, American Hustle is a slick, entertaining con movie with authentic filmmaking from Russell and outstanding performances from his cast members. 

Russell's work in his latest film is once again distinctly American.  You can see it in the 70’s costumes and grainy cinematography that makes the film seem like a product of the second golden age of cinema.  You can hear it in the outstanding musical selections in the film that harken back to bygone eras, including Duke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues" and Wings's (or more aptly Jennifer Lawrence's) "Live and Let Die".  You can feel it as we explore Russell's corrupt world full of colorful characters with their own individual agendas fueled by their will to survive.  With Russell deftly putting his stylistic stamp on his latest film, it's hard to argue that American Hustle is anything but a good old fashioned American movie.

While Russell does a great job from the director's chair, the success of the film also rests in the hands of the star-studded ensemble he's assembled.  Each and every one of them brings their best to the big screen here.  Christian Bale leads this ensemble as Irving Rosenfeld.  In this role, Bale gives a performance that's reminiscent of Robert De Niro in his prime.  Interestingly enough, I came to this conclusion in a scene of the film during which Bale's Rosenfeld is trading one mean stare with Robert De Niro's Victor Tellegio.  Though it's hard to see the Dark Knight out of shape, Bale rises to the occasion and gives us one slick, tough character with a lot of street smarts.  His co-star and nemesis Bradley Cooper gives an outstanding performance as well.  In his role as FBI agent Richie DiMaso, Cooper is a nervous Fed whose ambition is a little dangerous.  He oscillates between this collected, charismatic guy and a garrulous wreck.  Curls and all, Cooper gives a really enjoyable performance as he continues to shine by taking on diverse roles.

As Sydney Prosser, Amy Adams excels as usual.  This woman keeps giving outstanding performances year after year and doesn't get the recognition she deserves during awards season.  In her role as the guarded Sydney, Adams wears many facades.  The most obvious is her British alter ego Edith.  In a more nuanced way, she also wears the facade of being this tough woman.  As her relationship with Bale deteriorates, however, Adams begins to peel back the layers of her character, and we get to see an emotionally fragile woman.  For his part as New Jersey politician Carmine Polito, Jeremy Renner gives us one smooth, down-to-earth character that's a genuinely good guy.  More importantly, Renner brings an intensity and passion to the big screen that we haven't seen in quite a while.  It's nice to see him tackling more serious roles again.

Lastly, we have Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's crazy wife Rosalyn.  As I said in my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a few weeks ago, Lawrence just keeps getting better and better as time goes on.  This trend hasn't changed with American Hustle.  Maybe it's her character's blonde hair, but Lawrence's performance as this nutcase reminds me quite a bit of Melissa Leo in The Fighter.  As Rosalyn, Lawrence is a self-destructive, confrontational woman who’s not afraid to verbally spar with anyone.  Whether giving her wild rendition of "Live and Let Die" while cleaning, giving totally unexpected public displays of affection, or attempting to burn her house down for the twentieth time, Lawrence is totally unpredictable on screen.  In this role that stretches her as an actress, Lawrence is simultaneously a free spirit and a manipulative wife trapped in an emotional hell of her own doing.  Like her nail polish, there's something rotten and delicious about Jennifer Lawrence's Rosalyn Rosenfeld. 

It should come as no surprise that American Hustle is a truly fun film.  After all, what could you possibly expect with Batman, Phil Wenneck, Lois Lane, Hawkeye, and Katniss Everdeen on camera together?  Only good things can come of this.  With David O. Russell back in the director's chair, we get something that’s richly entertaining.  I just wish there was a little more depth to the plot.  It would be a surefire Best Picture front runner if that were the case.  As it stands, I have to give American Hustle a strong 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.