Friday 3 January 2014

Movie Review: American Hustle (2013)

A celebration of the American Dream's slimy underbelly, American Hustle is a wild ride through 1970s glitz with five fascinating characters.

It's the late 1970s in New York, and Irving (Christian Bale) is an overweight and balding small time con-artist. Irving is no longer living with his volatile wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) but he maintains a relationship with her for the sake of their son. Irving meets and immediately falls in love with scrappy stripper Sydney (Amy Adams). They team up, and with Sydney expertly adopting the haughty persona of the aristocratic Lady Edith Greensly, they move up a league in the con game, convincing investors to give them money in return for phantom lines of credit with non-existent banks.

Irving and Sydney are eventually nabbed by FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper), who is intent on making a name for himself by going after larger fish. Richie is instantly smitten with Sydney, and recognizes her talent at convincing people to part with their money. In exchange for leniency, Richie pressures Irving and Sydney to participate in an Arab Sheikh con designed to snare corrupt politicians, and they go after popular New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). But the con unexpectedly spirals to include congressmen, senators and the mob, while Rosalyn's clueless interference threatens to unleash chaos before Irving and Sydney can find a way to extricate themselves from unwanted entrapment charades.

Loosely inspired by the FBI's actual ABSCAM operation, American Hustle cares less about the madcap plot and more about desperate people trying to elbow their way to a better future. The screenplay by Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell shines in evoking sympathy for characters that should not deserve any. This is the pursuit of a promised dream in all its guises, and while the crooks, cops and politicians of American Hustle won't make too many dinner invitation lists, over the course of 140 minutes they become remarkably well-rounded personalities true to their own convictions.

Irving knows who he is: a small time con-man, fortunate to have Sydney by his side and content to milk the gullible out of relatively small amounts of money. Sydney is always too smart for Irving, but perhaps too ambitious for her own good, not as aware of her limits and willing to gamble to find out if she can do better.

Richie must be near the bottom of the FBI totem pole to go after characters like Irving and Sydney, and he knows it. He wants to move up and aim higher, an adventure that eventually makes him susceptible to Sydney, who can spot vulnerabilities from across town. Once the Arab Sheikh con is launched Richie wants to believe that he is in control, but Irving is the con artist and Sydney is the master conniver, and Richie is really only getting in the way. But Irving's blind spot, and the one variable that he cannot control, is Rosalyn. Despite her doltish ditziness Rosalyn knows that the control she has over Irving is her one card in life, and she plays it for all its worth, having fun while steering everyone into much deeper trouble.

And then there is Mayor Carmine Polito, a politician genuinely wanting to do good for the people of New Jersey, and who believes that a bit of grease is just part of the process. Carmine is an old fashioned populist, a booster for his state and his people, exploring opportunities for new investments and just a bit wary when suspicious characters like Irving and Richie start sliding briefcases his way.

David O. Russell stylishly packages the film with the garish excesses of the 1970s, where the wild hair and fashions matched the desperation of the clueless. Bathed in yellows and reds, American Hustle is gorgeous to look at, and visually hilarious, with Irving's comb-over, Richie's curls, and Sydney's gowns all committing crimes worse than any of the cons.

The five central performance are exemplary, Russell assembling a remarkable cast of top talent to enjoy the prevailing absurdity. Adams stands out as the most hustle-hungry of the hustlers, while Bale and Cooper bounce of each other as two potentially resourceful men both dangerously close to being labelled losers. Lawrence plays Rosalyn with understated showiness, the woman always ready with all the answers to blame everyone else for everything going wrong, and quick to push the buttons that keep her man properly manipulated.

And in a crucial role Renner provides Polito with impressive good but oily intent, the Mayor's inherent character crucial to undermining the basic premise of the scam. In a small but sharp single scene supporting role, Robert De Niro makes an uncredited appearance to revive the ghosts of all his mobster movies.

Richie's rush to go big means that he is aiming at a dubious target. Irving recognizes in Polito a better version of himself, and builds a genuine rapport with the Mayor. When the con-man and his mark become friends the risks only multiply, and watching it all unravel is boisterous fun.

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