David O. Russell's American Hustle is smart, savvy, and an Oscar contender waiting for the call.
With so many films this year about double-crosses, you might have become desensitized for them around Summer: Iron Man 3, 2 Guns, The Counselor and at least 5 more all explored the concept, each with mixed results. The problem with the genre is its propensity to get so convoluted that the story leaves audiences wondering if they had just been fleeced of their hard-earned cash. Luckily, best of the them - David O. Russell's American Hustle - comes out just in time to right the ship for Oscar season.
When we first meet the 1978 con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), he's engaged in a serious combo-over, readying himself for the biggest swindle of his life. Arrested by the FBI for fraud, he and faux-British sidekick Sydney (Amy Adams) are strong-armed into catching New Jersey politicians who are taking bribes. Their relationship - all built on lies - begins to grow, quite against the wishes of Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whose mental instability creates instant drama between the three. But the con soon turns dangerous as the mafia gets involved, threatening to undermine Agent Richie DiMaso's (Bradley Cooper) entire operation. As the double-crosses begin to pile up, Irving and Sydney must decide their allegiances, both to each other and to the cause.
Loosely based on the ABSCAM case of the 1970's, American Hustle's characters are obviously unbalanced, fed by the coked-up confusion of that era, which Director Russell makes sexier and slimier each time Adams dons a new vertical-cut dress that shows off her breasts or butt (and sometimes both). In fact, Adams is as naked as she can be without actually being so. This is a movie fixated on the importance of shallow surfaces, with every character masquerading as someone else, hoping to get their 'payoff.' As a result, everyone in Hustle is afraid of something: of Rosenfeld being outwitted, Syndey of poverty, and Rosalyn of abandonment. Each of them have something immediate and important to lose, and this drives them to act in increasingly diabolical and desperate ways. A fem showdown in a hotel bathroom turns into an unexpected smooch between our leads, while Richie's secrets force him to live an increasingly-destructive double life. There is so much enjoyable mystery going on here that one might emerge from the theater struggling to keep all the pieces together, but actually feeling good for the experience.
This is the insanity - and sick hilarity - behind Russell's masterpiece, pitting our characters in a growing web of crosses and double-crosses and led by some of the best performances of the year. Russell isn't here to tell historical fiction: he's much more concerned about character interaction, and that plays well with the cast he's assembled. Adams and Bale make a great con team, with Bale literally transforming for the role by adding 40 pounds and a combover from Hell. Lawrence, who keeps adding to her impressive credentials, shines with her Jersey Shore drama and wild hair styles. Even Jeremy Renner - who plays a passionate Camden mayor - gains our affection as a leader desperate to revive his decaying city and thus ready to court the most unsavory characters if needed. Cooper is also enjoyable here as an agent who's in over his head, unaware of the con Adams is running on him in an effort to gain some needed leverage in case the scam goes south. Our Oscar Christmas present includes two gift-wrapped cameos, only adding to the ridiculous nature of Hustle, with Russell's frenetic shooting style and Writer Eric Singer's profanity-laced script serving equally effective means.
Some critics have complained that American Hustle is too long, but we believe that a story will take the time it needs to sell itself (provided it's been properly edited), and so its 138-minute runtime feels adequate to the task. A sleazy combover double-cross that works on almost every level, this is certainly an Oscar contender, even if audiences might feel they need a shower afterwards. American Hustle is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence and comes highly recommended.
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