Every film based on real events really should start with a title card proclaiming that some of this stuff actually happened. It gives both the writers and film so much more leeway, you’d think it would happen more often. For the purposes ofAmerican Hustle, director David O Russell working from a script by himself and Erick Singer, uses historical context to plop 3 characters in the middle of the Abscam operation in an attempt to explore where the realness begins and ends with con-artists. The Abscam was an FBI operation that used con artists to catch corrupt politicians in the act.
This film is a hustle, a caper, a heist, it isn’t really real and the plot doesn’t matter. The plotting is dizzying in Hustle and better to just take in the moment and not really ponder too much; it’s not what this film is concerned with. Russell has never real cared about plotting, it’s always been about the emotional journey of his characters. This care for character is the emotional heart of the film and rather endearing. The level of care shown also gives way to a bit of indulgence, makingHustle last 10-20 minutes past its welcome. Not the worst thing since it means more time with this cast of actors but the middle portion of the film takes a noticeable jaunt to the side where no forward movement is really made.
David O Russell’s resurgence in Hollywood with this trilogy of films (The Fighter,Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle) has allowed the director to develop a troupe of actors: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams. He could go off and make whatever films he wants with this ensemble and the majority would be good and I’d see them all. Russell manages to get acting out of this group that other directors don’t. Bradley Coopers manic charm is focused in a Russell picture compared to others. Even as the character Cooper portrays, FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, makes many unseen jumps to megalomania as ambition gets the better of him.
A film filled with fakery, constantly asking you to question the legitimacy of every character interaction, Russell is rightfully concerned with finding the humanity in his two leads. The constant con artists Irving Rosenfeld(Bale) and Lady Edith Greensly(Adams). Cinematographer Linus Sandgren narrows the focus of a normally bustling frame and just remains stead fast on the actors eyes, the only real way to see the emotional truth in this film.
Both actors get to do some morphing. Bale with his usual physical transformations, gaining what appears to be 40 pounds to gives his extended belly proper girth. The other transformation being the elaborate comb over used by his character, darn it, is it hard not to believe that Bale has been doing that elaborate head job all his life. Adams is asked to put on an accent that also must go away from time to time, it sounds better than it does on paper. All told, the humanity found in Bales performance as he cons his friends and associates is among his best work. Adams impresses, showing more range than any performance in recent memory, also finding great humanity in her twisted and fractured character.
The remainder of the cast delivers good to great performances. As previously stated, Cooper’s energy is well channeled even though his character is ultimately forced to the background as he pulls off his masterpiece. Hustle’s most pleasant surprise comes in the form of Jeremy Renner, the extremely affable and sympathetic New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito.
Then there is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, the type of unknowable variable that could tank the whole operation. Bale may have an odd magnatisim to his performance, Lawrence grabs you by the thrat though sheer force of will and starpower. This kind of performance can be a love it or hate it proposition. With the character of Rosalyn being such a harpy – whose amount of self realization is constantly being challenged – she is not likeable and kind of just there to be shrill and mean to Irving.
This is a crazy cast of characters befitting a farce like Hustle. It is also fitting that this film is set in a baroque 1970’s where everything is gold but also a little dirty because it’s the seventies. The production and costume design in this film make it one of the prettiest to look at all year.
In a movie about con men and women and their work it would be easy to write it all off as farce, doubly so for a farce. Russell tries to really get to the emotional truth in all this fakery. Ultimately, I’m less inclined to fully commit to all of the films emotional beats due to it cribbing liberally from Goodfellas. Not a huge knock since if you’re going to emulate it might as well be the best. Worth noting thatHustle also lifts a scene pretty much from F for Fake, further compounding the meta fakery and conning. The constant voice over monologue and telling the audience how to feel, how much Carmines friendship meant to Irving for example, undermines the legitimately earned moments between Bale and Renner.
Hustle might not hustle (terrible pun I know) its way onto the tops of many lists or awards this season but there is still plenty to enjoy and be entertain by. It is just a really good film in a year of diverse greatness.
SIDE NOTE: This film is a comedic farce, it’s a comedy! You can laugh at it, it’s OK. There is plenty of quips and gags among other well timed moments. Nothing is more awkward than being the only one laughing surrounded by people taking it all much too seriously.
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