Day 266: American Hustle

"That's the art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and dreams on." 
After his last two films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook took the Academy Awards by storm winning three awards out of fifteen nominations, director David O. Russell became a major contender again after a number of years of false starts and a terrible reputation nearly sank him. With the fastest turnaround of his career, his latest film American Hustle comes just a year after his previous film, and has positioned itself to be another major awards contender. So could it possibly live up to the instant hype that surrounded its release, or is it a misfire from a director at the height of his creative power? Read on to find out...
Opening with a title card that reads "Some of this actually happened," American Hustle jumps out of the gate on fire, letting you know that while it's based on the true story of the Abscam stings that took down several corrupt politicians in the late 1970s, it's also going to be playing fast and loose with the facts. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist dabbling in a scam that bilks high risk investors out of thousands of dollars. His path crosses with that of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) a woman who is drawn to his ability to smooth talk anyone, and it isn't long before she becomes his partner in crime. The two become lovers as well, despite the fact that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and remains devoted to raising her son as his own.
When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts Sydney in one of their loan scams, he uses that leverage to enlist Irving's services to try and bust Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the corrupt mayor of Camden, NJ. They devise a scheme using a fake Middle Eastern sheik whose money Carmine says he will use to rebuild the now fading gambling town of Atlantic City. DiMaso's brazen tactics put him at constant odds with Irving's more subtle grifting style, and the two are butting heads over more than just the con, as Richie seems to be growing closer to Sydney, and Irving finds himself forming a true bond of friendship with Carmine. It's a game of who's conning whom and everyone trying to get over on everyone else. 
The most immediate thing that stands out about American Hustle is how stylistically similar it is to much of Martin Scorsese's work, particularly once the mafia becomes involved in the story, but it hedges much closer to homage than outright mimicry. While it feels completely in step with Scorsese's Goodfellas, with its use of whip pans, multiple voiceovers, and frenetic editing, it also has an energy all its own, and marches to the beat of its own drum. The film initially took life as a screenplay by Eric Warren Singer titled American Bullshit, and while that feels like a much closer title to what the finished film is, it does bear a lot of the hallmarks of Russell's best work, particularly his use of handheld camerawork. It captures time and place so incredibly well, and you truly feel as if this could have been made in the late 70s, as the time period is as much of a character as the actors themselves are. 
The film settles into a steady rhythm almost immediately, and after the opening sequence, tells the story in a completely linear fashion which aids in its ability to keep you forever in the dark about who has the upper hand. It's 138 minute running time allows the narrative room to breathe, and gives the characters time to develop, which is a welcome change from the typical way that films continue to put character on the back burner to cram as much story as possible into their film. Viewers going into this film expecting a whiz-bang narrative that moves at a clip will be disappointed by the number of scenes that are devoted to sheer character development, but those willing to hang with it will find the way that the characters grow and change to be the most fulfilling thing about the story. Russell is one of the few directors in Hollywood that actors continue to line up to work with mainly for this reason. He gives them room to grow. 
Christian Bale continues to prove that he is one of the most versatile actors working today, and those willing to follow him down the dark roads he likes to take will be rewarded with one of his best performances. Very few actors working today could pull off a role like this, and Bale does so with aplomb. Amy Adams is his equal in every sense of the word, staying lockstep with Bale throughout the film, and never letting her incredibly expressive face give away her character's motives. They make for a hell of a one-two punch, and their characters are fantastically and fully realized. Bradley Cooper continues to surprise me every time out of the gate lately, and he continues his growth into an interesting character actor yet again. He would be wise to follow the lead of his co-star Bale and take more risky roles like this one to create a hell of a well-rounded career. He most certainly has the chops for it, and his scenes with Louis CK, who plays his weary supervisor, are among his best.
Jennifer Lawrence is a fantastic actress, and she does an admirable job in this film and inhabits the role well, but she feels about ten years too young to be playing this role. I don't mean this as a slight as I was very impressed by her performance, as I am with virtually everything that she does, but she just doesn't have the city miles on her that this character needed to have. She just looks out of her element, despite her best efforts to play this character to the best of her ability. It's more a fault of casting than anything she did or any choices she made. The film's soundtrack also makes a few too many on-the-nose choices that are likely to take the audience out of the film's flow. It's not as egregious as last year's Flight, but the use of songs like Steely Dan's "Dirty Work," The Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" and Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" are too clever for their own good.
Make no mistake about it, American Hustle delivers, and is a fantastically made film that is sure to satisfy an adult audience looking for an adult film. I say that not as a slight against any other films, but in a society where adults are often pandered to with ham-fisted dialogue and broadly drawn characters, this is the kind of film that shirks all of those conventions and delivers a satisfyingly grown up film. Time will be kind to this film as it has a timelessness to it that has helped other films of its ilk, like Boogie Nights and the aforementioned Goodfellas, stand the test of time, and much like those films, it's also damn entertaining. American Hustle is one damn satisfying film. 
GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]