Tuesday, December 31, 2013

David O. Russell Once Again Spins Convention Into Originality with “American Hustle”

American Hustle is actually a really funny film.
American Hustle is typical David O. Russell.

It is a film with little narrative surprises—one that does all of the predictable things one might expect from its genre, and yet, somehow it has emerged as one of the year’s best films just as his Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter did in recent years.

The reason is simple. As with those films, Russell is playing connect the dots but refusing to draw straight lines. He’s working within the confines of convention, and yet his script is so zippy and filled with grace notes that there’s a real specificity to what he’s doing. It’s rare that Russell tries to wow with some story innovation; instead, he concentrates on character, putting effort not on this or that plot mechanic but on a palpable sense of depth, heart and humanity.

Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s, American Hustle focuses on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a pair of lovers/con artists who are forced by an FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into an elaborate sting operation to entrap corrupt politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. A variety of different issues arise to complicate the job and the central romance, including the involvement of Rosenfeld’s manic-depressive wife (Jennifer Lawrence), his growing friendship with Polito, and the desperate ambition of DiMaso, which ultimately puts the leads in the crosshairs of some dangerous mafia members.

The plot could make for a serious drama, but Russell keeps the tone light and there are several big laughs, many of which are courtesy of the deadpan genius of Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s boss at the FBI. Ocean’s 11 and The Sting are good comparison points, and Russell intentionally echoes classic Scorsese pictures like Goodfellas. However, the film I was most reminded of was Argo, another ’70s set capper film about a hard-to-believe, government-funded operation. However, whereas last year's Best Picture winner had a major problem fleshing out its characters (as outlined in my review), American Hustle, like all Russell films, excels at turning almost every pivotal character into a living, breathing person.

Oscars for costume design and makeup and hair-styling are
most likely in the bag.
It helps that Russell has a deep bench of fantastic actors, a great deal of whom he cultivated on his last two films. Bale and Adams top the excellent work they did in The Fighter, presenting the type of understanding partnership most would envy. When running a successful con, Rosenfeld’s motto is to do it from the feet up, and that expression might as well be used to describe the multilayered work they do here. Both actors deserve to be classified as two of the best of their generation, and the range they show in this film is another testament to that fact.

After reaching career heights with Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper and Lawrence are once again tasked with playing frantic and unstable characters, but this time they get to be unlikeable so no punches are pulled. Meanwhile, Renner emerges as the stealth weapon of the film, grounding the whole thing with his portrayal of a decent man undone by his overzealous desire to serve his constituents. His role is the least showy of the bunch, but, especially when considering how starkly in contrasts with his two Oscar-nominated performances, it’s hard to ignore.

American Hustle has been positioned as a year-end awards player, but it’s gotten some kickback as too lightweight for the Academy. It’s not a perfect film -- the script confusingly glosses over the finer details of most of the cons, many of which don’t make complete sense upon reflection -- but I’d argue against the notion that this is just some entertaining piece of fluff.

It’s a meditation on dissatisfaction, insecurity, desperation, reinvention, and the lengths people will go to improve their lot in life. It’s a hubristic tragedy, a crackerjack capper and a complicated love story all rolled into one. It’s one of the best films of the year. A