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American Hustle purports to be a mostly true story about the famous Abscam plot of the late 1970s, which trapped many East Coast politicians in a net of transgression and grift around the renovations of the then-dilapidated Atlantic City.  The root of this sometimes surreal and twisted tale lies under one man’s toupee.

For Irving Rosenfeld, the honest, respectable living he earns with his dry cleaning business just isn’t enough.  The paunchy, balding nebbish lives for the con, whether it’s selling fake fine art, or extending fictional, low-interest loans to luckless dupes.  When he meets a kindred spirit in Sydney, who aspires to a life higher than she can climb on her stripper pole, she transforms herself into a very proper British noblewoman to more easily slip suckers out of their savings.  The shifty duo fall in love while raking in their ill-gotten gain.  That Irving is shackled to a needy wife and her child seems a mere trifle when compared to their increasingly successful cons and their joy in each other.  Their cloud of fantasy plummets to earth only after they are finally caught by an FBI agent, who sees something he can use in the shady couple.  Aggressively ambitious, Richie DiMaso blackmails the would-be jailbirds by using them as bait to hunt bigger fish.  The trio join forces to set up elaborate scams under Irving’s exacting eye, which moves too cautiously for Richie, who craves larger carrion.  The agent also drips a little well-placed, ulteriorly-motivated poison into the ear of the increasingly unhappy Sydney, who’s made to realise Irving will never leave Rosalyn, his pathologically grasping wife.  The team’s success leads Richie to the grandest scheme of all, wherein he will fabricate a phony Arab sheik who promises politicians endless funding for various projects in and around Atlantic City in exchange for government favours and considerations.  Despite warnings from both Irving and his own FBI superiors that this is every shade of dangerous - especially once the Mafia becomes involved - Richie heedlessly trudges on, steamrolling over his “partners” knowing as an FBI agent, he’s free of much of the risk and stands to grab all the glory.

American Hustle is a movie that is impossible to define.  What starts as a dramatisation of the real-life story of some grifters - badge-wearing and otherwise - morphs into a black comedy, a romantic triangle, a caper film and ultimately ends up a muddle that’s superior as none.  It is almost as if in trying to defy classification, director David O. Russell hovered perilously close to the edge of pastiche and tipped over.  The story’s 1970s setting becomes another actor in the film and in many ways, its worst enemy.  From the opening scene of Christian Bale’s real-life beer belly and the hideous, meticulously-sculpted combover rug applied to his shaved head, we know we’re in for something off-kilter.  Ugly fashion after ugly fashion fills the screen: There’s Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso, sporting a Toni home perm before heading to a Studio 54-ish disco with Amy Adams’ Sydney, whose faux-Brit Lady Edith does not own one single dress with a front to it.  Russell crams so much of the period’s kitsch and garishness before our eyes that the movie begins to feel like a spoof and takes much of the tension away from what one presumes is the base story of the triangle amongst our leads and the impending danger of the FBI scam. 

The comedy aspect is so strong that our concern for the well-being of either of the three main characters becomes nil.  Many of the supporting players in tiny roles wind up knocking the lead trio off the screen for their short moments of excellence, like Louis CK as Richie’s much abused FBI boss, who never gets a word edgeways with his self-impressed underling, not even to relate an inspiring story.  Michael Peña as the FBI’s fake Arab, unprepared and in over his head is great for his few seconds.  And though he sports a ridiculous, bullet-proof pompadour and belts out Tom Jones’ “Delilah” in the middle of a bar, Jeremy Renner is perhaps the only character the audience feels for as the mayor of run-down Camden, New Jersey; a truly good-hearted fellow desperate to save his town.  I won’t spoil the brilliant cameo by an actor playing a very dangerous man who wants a piece of the Sheik’s action, other than to say it should have been extended if for no other reason than to bring some of the tension back into the film.  On the con side of the performances (NPI); I have never understood and still don’t get when, why and how Bradley Cooper became such an in-demand actor.  Having watched him since 2001 in his first big role on the action series, Alias, I still don’t see it.  Back then, he always seemed to be trying too hard to make himself stand out in every scene and the effort was grating.  So it is here as the single-minded FBI agent, Cooper’s portrayal is without nuance, even in the most tense or desperate moments.  He begins at an amped-up level and it never varies, even when Richie ought to be more wired, having started to use cocaine.  Understanding that his and Bale’s characters are meant to be rivals, I still felt as if Cooper hammered at his line readings, talking at Bale with no real give and take, which affected their chemistry and Richie’s depth.

There can be no discussion of American Hustle without an entire separate declaration for Miss Jennifer Lawrence as the neurotic Rosalyn, aptly called, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate” by her spouse.  The housewife, who has no intention of letting go of a single comfort she feels she’s earned, regularly destroys everything she touches, while refusing to accept blame for anything.  These incidents would include occasionally setting their house on fire, once by blowing up the brand-new microwave oven - new technology for the time - the Mayor gifts to Irving.  In Rosalyn’s mind, every calamity she causes occurs for a good reason, whether her frustrated spouse can see it or not; right down to the casual, “accidental” slip of incriminating information to a flirting Mafioso, who summarily proceeds to torture her husband.  Rosalyn envisions herself as a loving muse defending her home, not the psychotic, greedy harridan that the rest of the world sees.  Lawrence chomps into the over-the-top character with claws, incisors, molars and detachable jaws.  Her Rosalyn is so alive and vivid, she’s practically in 3D while the rest of the film is flat.  Most of her scenes are either played on her own or with Bale, who, quite understandably looks as if he was fighting a tornado in their sequences.  I can’t imagine what a weaker actor would’ve done against the gale-force performance.  One amazing moment occurs during at the big party for all those involved in the FBI sting, where the wife and mistress (Sydney) face-off:  Lawrence turns Rosalyn’s rage-filled, righteous indignation into a barely-confined volcano, capping it off with a perfect ending move.  Rosalyn as written is terribly unlikeable and unsympathetic, but it’s moments like those and others throughout American Hustle that turn her into something much more and Lawrence walks away with the film.  As the movie wears on, everything goes pale when she’s not on screen.

American Hustle is an undefined jumble of a movie.  It tries to be everything at once and winds up amorphous and messy, raised up only by its actors.  There’s the uniformly excellent Bale (Is he ever bad, really?) and Amy Adams, who sparkles at first and then fades into nothing; the brilliant supporting players and the stellar scene-stealing by Jennifer Lawrence.  The last of those is worth the price of admission alone, but even then, not by terribly much.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Dec 20th, 2013

 

 

 

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(Stills Courtesy of  Sony Pictures)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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