American Hustle (2013)

(SPOILERS ABOUND!)

In the midst of an Oscar season filled with the usual dramatic fare comes David O’Russell’s American Hustle to remind me why I began watching films in the first place: to be utterly entertained. Not that I don’t mind or enjoy the more serious films we get in December and January, it just seems to me that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that having fun and being entertained are also perfectly good reasons to visit movie theaters. And they’re also perfectly good reasons why a director may choose to make a film. There really is nothing more to American Hustle than that. It doesn’t aim high, unlike Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which has its sights set on dismantling the very notion of the American Dream. David O’Russell primarily means to entertain his audience, and from what I saw, I’d say he did that. American Hustle is just about the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in 2013.

Of course, I don’t mean to say there’s nothing more to Hustle than mere entertainment. Superficially, it is one of the most stylish films I’ve seen in 2013. The talk of the town is has O’Russell out-Scorsesed Scorsese with this film. And while I don’t want to get into that discussion, I’d say O’Russell has borrowed a lot of Scorsese’s stylistic flourishes to extremely good effect. From the distinctive tracking shots to the usage of rock ‘n’ roll music, American Hustle has all the vintage Scorsese trademarks. In fact, when you consider how important rock music is in critical scenes in the film and how O’Russell uses them to establish the mood and pacing, one could say that Hustle looks and feels like a beautiful homage to Martin Scorsese (and more specifically Goodfellas), though I am pretty sure David O’Russell didn’t intend it that way. However he may have intended it, there’s no denying that Hustle is a brilliantly executed piece of filmmaking with a style that is all its own.

The story is relatively straightforward and follows con-artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who goes under the alias Lady Edith Greensley. When FBI agent Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper) catches them red-handed on loan scam, he offers them a deal: help him catch four conmen similar to them, and they can walk. Things are further complicated by Sydney having second thoughts about her relationship with Irving who is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and refuses to leave his adopted son from that marriage. Richie’s plan is to go at some big targets including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who wants cash infusion to renovate Atlantic City’s Casino business.

The script, which O’Russell co-wrote with Eric Warren Singer, is laced with wit and humor. And when combined with the deadpan delivery from his actors, there are scenes which will have you laughing uncontrollably. But what I also liked was the film’s moral compass, and the dichotomy of Bale and Cooper’s characters. Irving maybe on the wrong side of the law, but he has a strong moral core and believes in what Carmine is doing. And while Richie is on the right side of the law, his motivations are purely personal. He wants to be seen as the heroic FBI agent who pulled off the sting operation of the century. In the end, it is this hubris that blinds him and leads to his downfall.

So far, the two O’Russell films I’ve seen (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) have been actor’s playgrounds, and Hustle is no different. Christian Bale once again sinks his teeth into the role. His dedication to his craft is frightening and borders on the insane. The film opens with a flashy shot of Bale’s humongous pot belly, which he supposedly grew for this film, and it is brought up a couple of times later as well. Bale is expected to provide the moral center for the film, somebody the audience can latch on to, and he does it flawlessly. His facial expressions and body language tell you that he feels uneasy about the operation. He is also terrific in scenes such as the one where he tears into his wife for letting her mouth lose, where he confesses his love to Sydney, and especially the scene where he breaks down to Mayor Carmine for the part he played in the operation. And what I especially loved about this performance was how it didn’t call attention to itself which is something Bale has been guilty of in the past; there was a subtlety to it which I appreciated. It may not win the Academy Award this year, but it is a great performance, and no less than what I’ve come to expect from Bale these days.

Amy Adams has become one of the front-runners in the Oscar race for Best Actress, and deservedly so. Adams has really let loose in the past couple of years. She’s always been a great actress, but The Fighter was one of the first films where she truly got in touch with her bad girl side. The Master was a similar role, and she does it again in another O’Russell film. She is deliciously steamy as Sydney, providing the perfect foil to Irving and Bale. Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off her Oscar success last year, is perfectly cast as the passive-aggressive Rosalyn. I ended up absolutely loathing her character, which means Lawrence did a great job. Cooper’s got the least showy role, and it is perfectly serviceable performance. I also loved Louis CK’s supporting role as Richie’s boss. I’ve always wondered how he’d fare on the big screen, and to my surprise, he held his own against a lot of seasoned actors. Though how much of my love for his performance came because it was actually good and how much of it was because he is Louis CK, I’ll never know.

Judging by the amount of awards American Hustle has already won, and the number of categories it has been nominated for in the Oscars, it is safe to say that most people loved it as much as I did. It is still too early to say whether it will feature among the top of my personal year-end lists, but there’s no doubt that Hustle is a damn-perfect entertainer, and one of the most enjoyable films to come out in 2013.

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