A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2013

RANK:  #8


2013, R,  138 mins.


Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld  /  Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso  /  Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser  /  Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito  /  Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld  /  Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen  /  Jack Huston as Pete Musane  /  Michael Peña as Paco Hernandez  /  Elisabeth Röhm as Dolly Polito

Directed by David O. Russell  /  Written by Eric Singer

Writer/director David O. Russell has always had a impeccable knack for getting into the headspaces of his tightly wound up and emotionally damaged characters, as was on display in his two previous films, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and THE FIGHTER.  

His newest film AMERICAN HUSTLE - a sprawling, vivaciously stylized, and frequently hilarious 1970’s caper/period film – continues on with his tradition of being drawn into personas that emotionally unravel as the story around them does the same.  At its finest, the film is an intoxicating character piece, showcasing a litany of colorful and distinctively flawed human beings trapped in predicaments that they unavoidably have no control over.  In some form or another, they all seem to be headed for self-implosive defeat…they just can’t see it coming until it’s too late. 

Since this is a film about con artists, it’s of no surprise that the central characters here are, yes, manipulative hustlers.  In the film’s bravura opening scene, we meet Irvin Rosenfeld (a pot-bellied Christian Bale, a nice sight to see especially after witnessing him starve himself to death in past roles in THE MACHINIST and THE FIGHTER), a con man that sits in front of the mirror for what seems like an eternity – in an unbroken shot – as he assembles the layers upon layers of his massive comb-over (with some slick application of glue).  It’s an offbeat and eccentric manner to begin a film like this with, but it’s crucial to building an understanding of this man: He makes a living meticulously building upon lie after lie until it seems like the truth to others, so it’s noteworthy to see him groom himself with such exactitude and focus.  Granted, no amount of extra hair glued in place will ever hide the fact that Irvin is seriously going bald.  One way or another, this dude is a total swindler.   

Irvin is all business, though.  The Bronx man runs a series of dry cleaning businesses, but he makes most of his money operating a fraudulent loan business that takes $5000 dollar retainers from poor saps on the promise of a huge payoff later…only nothing else happens afterwards.  Despite his criminal activities and rather unhandsome façade, Irvin does manage to find love at a local pool party, where he has a meet-cute with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, as fetching as ever), and after sharing a moment over a classic record, the two become inseparable.  When Sydney discovers what her new boyfriend really does, she compellingly does not flee away, but rather offers her services, posting as a fake Londoner with “bank connections.”  Irvin’s business then takes off in a big, big way. 



Alas, at the zenith of their success and hubris, Irvin and Sydney do get caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, rocking a perm like it never went out of style), but he does not want to put them in the slammer.  He acknowledges their skills as hustlers, and instead wants to enlists them in a clandestine mission to capture some crooks – including the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), some congressmen, and even members of the mob – while they get involved in some rather illegal business moves.  With no other recourse, both Irvin and Sydney agree to the massive con game, but the longer it progresses the more every player begins to see obstacles in their paths.  Sydney and Richie begin to develop a romantic kinship, which infuriates Irvin.  Irvin begins to forge an actual friendship with the mayor, which leads to a crisis of conscience for him.  Lastly, Irvin’s hotheaded and big-mouthed wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, whom Russell directed to an Oscar win in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) may not be able to keep secrets of the mission to herself, therefore jeopardizing everyone.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is based on fact…sort of.  It draws its story from the actual FBI ABSCAM sting operations of the late 70’s that tried to bust corrupt government officials, but Russell assures us from the very beginning (via a sly title card) that “some of this actually happened.”  The key here is that Russell and screenwriter Eric Singer are not interested in dissecting the facts regarding ABSCAM, but rather use it as a jumping off point to investigate the inner drives – and foibles – of their characters.  The con itself within the film is important, to be sure, and the script takes great delight in showing con upon con…upon con…to the point where we’re guessing what’s happening as much as the characters eventually do.  Yet, the real thematic undercurrent here, beyond the actually caper itself, is how all of these characters become wrapped up within a tight bubble of their own deceptions to one another.  AMERICAN HUSTLE is really about the lengths that desperate people – even Cooper’s FBI ladder climbing agent – will go to in order to ensure their own positive futures. 

1970’s period films are tricky, because too much attention to the raw garishness of the times can be distracting, whereas not enough fails to immerse audiences in the period.  Russell finds that tricky middle area, I think, of having fun with the high fashion, big haired, and colorfully tacky accoutrements of the Disco era, and he does so with a bit of mocking disdain and subtle reverence as well.  Michael Wilkinson’s costume design hits a solid bulls-eye (especially when it comes to Adams' plunging necklined dresses, which are numerous), and cinematographer Linus Sandgren frames the film with a loving and painstaking eye for the most gaudy of pop culture details from the bell-bottomed-heavy era.  Combining that with an eclectic grouping of the time’s more famous tunes blaring on the soundtrack and Russell’s playful and energetic camera work leaves AMERICAN HUSTLE feeling like a work of supreme stylistic confidence and showmanship.  Russell has never made a more fully lived-in and evocative looking film.   

The film’s exhilarating sense of style would be nothing without great acting to fill in the gaps, and Russell – as he has demonstrated time and time again – generates virtuoso performances from all his cast.  Bale has the Herculean task of making the slimeball that is Irvin a somewhat tragic and sympathetic character as the story progresses, and he nails the inherent contradictions of his role quite masterfully.  Cooper’s hot-headed and authority defying agent is also a treasure to behold, as the actor really gets under Richie’s skin and conveys his escalating sense of unease with his mission.  Amy Adams just may get her fifth Oscar nomination for her work as Sydney, who crafts a multi-layered portrait of a woman that casts multiple deceptions on the men around her, but oftentimes is just deluding herself.  And Jennifer Lawrence, at such a young age, has a manner of stealing scenes away from her more experienced co-stars.  Decked out in a high bun hairdo, gaudy makeup, and a toxic level of verbal aggression, her Rosalyn is an unpredictable force of nature in the film.   

Much has been made by critics comparing AMERICAN HUSTLE to Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, which is apt in the sense that both films – despite their insular tone and feel – have an epic narrative sweep (that, and both are set in the same relative period and contain characters that desperately try to find a way out of their increasingly volatile situations that may end up killing them).  In the end, the similarities are all but superficial, even when Russell does borrow many stylistic cues and editorial choices from Scorsese at times.   AMERICAN HUSTLE is a real original in the sense that it combines elements of a crackerjack crime/caper comedy with an immaculately cast and performed ensemble drama…and it’s all fused together with a dazzling display of filmmaking self-assurance and virtuosity by Russell.  The sheer pleasure of AMERICAN HUSTLE is just going along for the film’s ride, and this is certainly one of 2013’s most unforgettable ones.

  H O M E