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Dustin Putman

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American Hustle  (2013)
2 Stars
Directed by David O. Russell.
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Elisabeth Rohm, Alessandro Nivola, Shea Whigham, Robert De Niro, Colleen Camp, Melissa McMeekin, Dawn Olivieri, Anthony Zerbe.
2013 – 129 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 11, 2013.
"Some of this actually happened," reads one of the opening title cards of "American Hustle," a cheekier-than-most crime drama that weaves a fictionalized account of the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late-1970s/early-'80s. Written and directed by David O. Russell (2012's "The Silver Linings Playbook") and co-written by Eric Warren Singer (2009's "The International"), the film proves to be a snappy showcase for talented actors doing their thing. It is them, ultimately, who are put in a sterling light here, and they are surrounded by era-specific art direction, costumes, hairstyles and music that authentically recreate 1978 without making a joke or mockery out of the time period. Where "American Hustle" could potentially let one down is in its decision to adopt a laid-back, at times too comically inclined tone. There was the opportunity to create a hard-hitting account of this particular story, but instead it is generally light and even frothy. No one seems to be at any great risk, which cuts the potential tension in half, and Russell feels the need to continuously remind his audience that nothing too bad is going to happen to them. That's fine and all, but it doesn't make the most enthralling of narratives—even if, as already mentioned, the ensemble alone are a joy to watch playing their respective parts.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) runs a chain of New Jersey dry cleaning stores. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is a former stripper who has successfully reinvented herself, getting a job at Cosmopolitan magazine before turning to work for herself. When they meet at a party, sparks fly. Both are stupendously talented at taking on different roles and personas—Sydney can slip into her British businesswoman alter-ego Lady Edith Greensly at a moment's notice—and together they turn to a series of elaborate art forgery schemes. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Irving and Sydney red-handed, he coerces them into working for the bureau to pull off a collection of cons that will incriminate everyone from deadly mob boss Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) to corrupt New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), currently in the middle of a scam to rebuild Atlantic City's casino-resort landscape. It is a tough situation with which Irving and Sydney have no choice but to go along, but it is the most unsuspecting of all people—Irving's loose-cannon wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence)—who just might have the upper hand in deciding whether or not their plan sinks or swims.

"American Hustle" is an A-list entertainment that works, for the most part, in spite of not adding up to very much in the long run. How everything works itself out is tidy—too tidy, perhaps—and the lingering thought it left behind was of the "is-that-all-there-is?" variety. The more one thinks about it, though, the more it starts to look better in spite of its insignificance. From a filmmaking perspective, David O. Russell is channeling everything from Michael Mann to Martin Scorsese here, the fluidity of his camera, courtesy of cinematographer Linus Sandgren (2012's "Promised Land"), and the mastery of his song choices—America's "A Horse with No Name," Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and Wings' "Live and Let Die" are all incorporated into the picture to spectacular fashion—keeping things humming along.

Christian Bale (2013's "Out of the Furnace") digs into Irving Rosenfeld, free of vanity, but will likely receive more accolades because of his character's hairpiece and beer belly than for the performance itself. Bale is a strong center for the movie, but he doesn't consistently sell the concept that Irving is irresistible to women in spite of his receding hairline and out-of-shape physicality. As Sydney, Amy Adams (2013's "Man of Steel") brings a fierce confidence to a woman who presents herself one way in front of people and another behind closed doors. Her shaky British accent comes in and out, sometimes in the same sentence, but this is an intentional detail that better sells her near-constant attempts to be anyone other than who she really is. Bradley Cooper (2013's "The Place Beyond the Pines"), as the meticulously permed Richie DiMaso, continues to prove his naysayers (of which I used to be one) wrong; little by little, he has been exhibiting a real flair in front of the camera as much more than the smarmy pretty-boy he once seemed. Jeremy Renner (2013's "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters"), as Carmine Polito, and Louis C.K. (2013's "Blue Jasmine"), as self-deprecating FBI supervisor Stoddard Thorsen, add further flavor to the cast.

As uniformly fine as the aforementioned performers are, they are overshadowed in a big way by the picture's most valuable player. As the flighty but not dumb, gorgeous but also unpredictably brilliant Rosalyn—"the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate," as Irving describes her—Jennifer Lawrence (2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire") is mesmerizing, a true original who commands the screen to such a degree the viewer might just find him or herself wishing the plot were about her. Lawrence's screen time isn't huge in comparison to Bale's or Adams', but she makes the most of every scene she's a part of, vanishing behind the facade of a young wife and mother who might not know how to use a microwave, but is well aware of what Irving is doing behind her back. Hilarious and poignant in equal measures—her sing-along to "Live and Let Die" is the film's standout moment—Lawrence simultaneously steals the movie and makes it better.

An example of performances transcending the motion picture they are in, "American Hustle" excels when observing its human figures in all of their honest and pretend forms. The dialogue is snappy, but the story it serves is lacking and the way certain characters are let off the hook comes too conveniently. With a few rewrites, Russell could have brought additional weight and intrigue to this project, but has apparently aimed for something almost sunny even in its thematic darkness. It is a calculated creative choice, indeed, but maybe not quite the right one. "American Hustle" is a good film, but disappointing in the knowledge that greatness was so closely within its grasp.
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman