December 19, 2013

Review: Some of 'American Hustle' Actually Happened

"Some of this actually happened."

Early on in American Hustle, director David O. Russell's fictionalized adaptation of the real-life FBI Abscam scandal, Christian Bale comments to Bradley Cooper about a piece of forged art and whether an original or its copy is a true work of art. I took this as a mediation on the whole film as it's clearly a lovingly made replication of classic Martin Scorsese gangster and caper films (think Goodfellas) with Russell mirroring those films' style and sense of cinematic storytelling.

Bale's tortured Irving Rosenfeld is a low-level con man who succeeds in seeing talent in others and sticking to details to avoid trouble and danger. He's partnered with a kindred spirit in Sydney early, played by the remarkably electric Amy Adams, channelling all kinds of magnetism, flirting with many different personalities and sensibilities. Bale is so deliciously sleazy with his egregiously elaborate combover and hairy gut as he carries the film's momentum admirably from scene to scene. He fully embodies the bloated yet dynamic figure in a transformative performance.

Jennifer Lawrence (playing older once again) really goes for it with a unusually manic performance as Irving's unpredictable wild card of a wife. She maintains a charismatic perkiness while revealing dark undertones to threaten Irving at every corner. Russell eschews history, facts, and much of the film's narrative for consistent exploration of these characters and the ludicrous world around them. He builds and weaves a framework of relationships leading to the corruption of American ideals and dreams.

Jeremy Renner is the mark, a well-liked, respected, and mostly honourable New Jersey mayor is exploited and used up again and again. He and Irving develop and bond which tortures his conscience to no end. In contrast, Cooper takes the film to strange places as his FBI agent Richie DiMaso becomes more and more monstrous and corrupted despite being on the right side of the law. He gets greedier as he manipulates the situation to his benefit, getting unhinged in the process, crumbling under his own ambitious madness, being seduced by the con man's life and Adam's sex appeal.

Russell excels in telling an exceptionally American story revealing how each character is hustling for themselves and conning others at every turn. Lies and manipulations come so frequently, we forget who's playing who and how fake feelings blur into reality. In the hands of a less assured director, American Hustle would easily devolve into a cheap imitation of the films is aspires to be. Instead, its a luscious love letter to the corruption, style, and excess of the late 1970's. It's too bad all these elements never build to more satisfying ideas or themes. In some respects, it's a "copy" of a past era of crime and gangster genre film, an expensive copy, filled with some of the year's most compelling drama.

Russell continues his streak of intriguing, transformative works with American Hustle. It's full of confidence and great performances. However, the film just never elevates or connects its many wondrous elements to propel more of a story forward. It's fun, mad cap, and wildly watchable yet lacks a soul to ground its crazy plot. What makes the film so enlightening, its loose structure and devotion purely to character, not circumstance, also hinders it from being an entirely functional film and cinematic experience on its own. It's all tease without the big climax it promises. American Hustle is a fine exercise in high style and overdramatic acting.

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