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by Eric Kohn
December 4, 2013 12:00 PM
16 Comments
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Review: David O. Russell's 'American Hustle' Is Snazzy And Fun -- With a Purpose

"Some of this actually happened," reads the opening credit of David O. Russell's "American Hustle," although it could equally apply to any of the filmmaker's previous works. Russell's freewheeling approach to portraying downtrodden Americans fighting to achieve small personal victories pervades his movies so comprehensively that they may as well exist in his own invented universe. Yet they also maintain a heightened realism through Russell's caustic, loose screenplays, which rely on high energy performances that allows the humanity of his characters to hover over the material and transcend its fixed ingredients. They aren't just the stars of the show -- they steal it, which makes this tale of con artists in the late seventies into ideal turf for Russell to run wild.

Needless to say, story comes second to Russell over the rhythms of well-timed bickering, which is a blessing and a curse in "American Hustle": A confident, polished work, it's also a tangled caper about criminals and the FBI enmeshed in a convoluted scheme that's beside the point -- and yet, with its 137 minute running time, there's so much of plotting that sometimes the movie seems as though it's engaged in the same identity crisis assailing its leads. But the Frankenstein narrative holds a unique allure.

Before anyone in "American Hustle" starts talking, Russell gives us a single cogent image: Conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) glaring at himself in a hotel mirror, packing a significant paunch, his hair jutting upward from a bald scalp as he prepares to apply an unruly combover. The actor's barely recognizable, and becomes increasingly buried in the performance as he awkwardly wrestles with his hairpiece, establishing the slapstick tone and the story's main theme with a single comic bit.

Set in New Jersey in 1978, "American Hustle" is all about people wearing costumes, literally and otherwise, to hide their agendas. Building on a screenplay originally written by Eric Singer, Russell uses as a foundation the famous FBI Congressional corruption probe Abscam, in which federal agents worked with con artist Mel Weinberg to ensnare politicians accepting bribes. The plan was too ambitious for its own good, partly because it stemmed from the daring objective of a reckless federal agent mainly intent on landing his own victories. In "American Hustle," that role falls to a wide-eyed Bradley Cooper as agent Richie DiMaso, who forces Rosenfeld and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to help the FBI with his ambush plans after he busts the couple for running a phony investment firm.

But "American Hustle" starts after these pieces have already been put in motion: The couple have begrudgingly started working for DiMaso to capture the local mayor (Jeremy Renner) accepting a bribe. When it flashes back to explain how they got there, Russell hesitates, focusing instead on the courtship between Rosenfeld and Prosser, a passionate young woman with a vague origin story drawn to Rosenfeld's confidence (if not his body type). It's only once their get-rich-quick plot takes off that DiMaso enters the picture and ensnares them in an even riskier gamble.

By then, it's practically irrelevant. While peppered with multiple voiceovers to display various perspectives on the situation, nobody comments much on the actual plan of offering false bribes to politicians for casino licenses. When Prosser describes Rosenfeld's allure, she says that he's "so careful and precise about every stylistic detail," an observation that could apply to their eventual scams -- but doesn't. "American Hustle" is predominantly concerned with the personalities of its ensemble ahead of their specific actions.

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16 Comments

  • D. | December 5, 2013 6:02 AMReply

    Adams loses steam near the end of the film....great film btw, but Lawrence truly steals every scene she's in. Especially the scene in the ladies room...Lawrence owns that scene.

  • goren | December 4, 2013 11:24 PMReply

    Great review Mr Kohn. The reality is that movie is a comedy with dramatic content and this mixture is most of the time not trouble free.

  • ANS | December 4, 2013 6:31 PMReply

    No comment on horrendous accents from Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence? If they were any other actors, you'd be panning them.

  • ANS | December 4, 2013 11:43 PM

    @Eric,
    On Ms. Adams, I stand corrected, thank you.
    However my point about Ms. Lawrence still stands. Any other actress and people would not be wetting themselves about this. I like her, good actress, but people are acting like she's the next Meryl Streep. It's insane.

  • Eric | December 4, 2013 11:28 PM

    Adams' horrendous accent is explained in the movie's plot, but it would be a spoiler to reveal the reason.

  • Dede | December 4, 2013 8:31 PM

    JLaw seems like a sweet girl but this pedestal thing is getting on my nerves. It's not her fault. I will wait to see the movie. But if what you say is right, you won't hear much from the press because she's "it" right now...bringing in the money.

  • - | December 4, 2013 7:45 PM

    I don't know, is Adams' accent that bad? I've heard JLaw's in that microwave clip and yeah, her accent there is pretty bad.

  • Christina | December 4, 2013 3:52 PMReply

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  • Audrey | December 6, 2013 8:18 AM

    Amy's accent is purposefully bad. But to explain why would be to spoil the movie. She's a con artist. But that doesn't mean she's actually good at impersonating upper class people. Her character is a former stripper.

    I loved Adams' performance and I'm baffled how anyone would critique it for being too subtle. If anything, she was the one who came off the most like a (very troubled, lonely) human being in a world of cartoon characters. And I think that was the point.

  • Athena | December 4, 2013 2:13 PMReply

    Mena and the Jerk, ladies and gentlemen...aren't they a riot!...(waits for applause)...They'll be here through Thursday...enjoy the veal!.

    Anyway, great review, Mr. Kohn...really looking forward to this film!!. Jennifer Lawrence on her way to a third Oscar nomination...damn!. Go get it girl!.

  • Mena | December 4, 2013 1:23 PMReply

    Lawrence acting so bad it's hilarious she won nyfcc, ridiculous.

  • aka | December 4, 2013 10:06 PM

    Oh so you've seen the film? Please inform me based off seeing the film if it is a comedy or drama.

  • Silvana | December 4, 2013 5:49 PM

    Lawrence is an overrated actress that she stolen the Oscar from Emmanuelle Riva, in american hustle she is overacted and ridiculous, silly.

  • gabs | December 4, 2013 2:12 PM

    and who are you? oh yeah…someone hiding behind the computer who's clearly not talented enough to make it in the industry but seems to think his or her opinion is golden.

  • Amanda | December 4, 2013 2:04 PM

    Shut up!

  • Jerk | December 4, 2013 1:22 PMReply

    Come on, this movie is overrated, pathetic critics.