2 hours, 18 minutes
I run hot and cold on director David O. Russell. Part of this generation’s group of soon-to-be legendary auteurs, a group that includes Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, and Spike Jonze, Russell can be a bit much sometimes. Maybe that’s what makes him a true auteur — he’s way too impressed with his own voice, at least as its vocalized cinematically. I really loved “Three Kings” and was very impressed with “The Fighter,” but “Silver Linings Playbook” left me confused as to what the big deal was and “I Heart Huckabees” was such a mess I couldn’t even get through half of it.
This week’s film, late to us, but already a big hit in the rest of the country, is the 70s-era “American Hustle,” and though I had a twinge of the reaction I had to “Playbook,” the movie mostly brings it home, putting is squarely in the positive category.
Christian Bale, in yet another shape-shifting performance, is Irving Rosenfeld, a mid-level con artist/dry cleaning impresario who falls madly in love with Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser. Sydney is relatively new to the city and is more than willing to do what it takes to get ahead. She sees in Irving the same drive, the same bravado, and the two join forces. Irving brings the craft and caution, Sydney the organization and ambition.
Soon the two, with Sydney posing as British aristocrat Lady Edith Greensly, are bilking every sadsack in three counties, and having a ball doing it. Sounds bad, but the movie has a kind of twisted perspective. Irving, a crook, is the most sympathetic character in the film. Also sympathetic: corrupt politicians and, to some extent, mobsters. Held out for scorn are the FBI and Irving’s frazzled wife, on whom he’s cheating with the very sympathetic Sydney.
Lest you think David O. Russell has crafted a dark and cynical morality tale, however, I can assure you the film is not that deep. In fact, the entire production, despite some real dramatic tension, has an element of sweetness. Rosalynd Rosenfeld, Irving’s troubled wife, is played with a kind of manic obliviousness by Jennifer Lawrence, who proves once again that she can handle just about anything that comes her way. Irving is in a bind — he loves Sydney, but really cares for Rosalynd, and feels responsibility for her 8-year old son, who he has adopted.
And if that weren’t enough, one Richie DiMaso is about to enter their lives, changing everything for the worse. Richie is an ambitious FBI agent with delusions of grandeur. He sees in Irving and Sydney, who Richie thinks is Lady Edith, two brilliant con artists that can be manipulated into entrapping all kinds of high profile white collar criminals. It doesn’t matter to Richie that these corrupt politicians are just honest, hardworking guys trying to do their best for the community. Our intrepid agent is about to make a name for himself, and it doesn’t matter who he hurts, even if it’s Carmine Polito, beloved New Jersey mayor, family man, and civic dreamer.
See, I told you this movie had a bizarre perspective.
Skewed world-view aside, what “Hustle” has going for it is a dynamite script, an entertaining plot, and a heck of a talented cast. What it does not have is gravitas, which makes it a little surprising at how well it’s doing at the myriad award ceremonies this season, but then maybe the various academy members just wanted to be entertained.
And entertaining it is. Christian Bale is amazing playing a character about as diametrically opposed to his Bruce Wayne as you can possibly imagine. With his terrible hair, his paunch and heavy Bronx accent, not to mention his laundry list of illegal activities, it’s an amazing feat that Irving is as relatable and likeable as he is. Amy Adams is similarly great as Sydney, neatly playing hard-as-nails with a barely perceptible vulnerability buried deep down. Bradley Cooper turns in another stellar performance as DiMaso whose dimwittedness is only matched by unstoppable drive. It’s a complex character, but a funny one, as well.
Funniest of all is Jennifer Lawrence as the flighty, careening, emotional mess that is Rosalynd. “American Hustle,” though humorous, isn’t really a laugh out loud kind of film, but there were a few surprise laughs brought on by Lawrence’s performance.
Finally, rounding out this incredible cast is Jeremy Renner, as Mayor Carmine Polito. Polito is so beloved in his mostly black and hispanic community, that his speeches often resembled a church meeting. When he is told that an Arab sheik is in town, looking to invest in the rebuilding of Atlantic City, the mayor decided that it was imperative to secure the sheik’s backing. And just like that, ABSCAM is born.
I liked “American Hustle” very much, though I wouldn’t call it the greatest film I’ve ever seen. For late January, though, let’s just say it’s better than just about anything else we have.
“American Hustle” is rated R for sexual situations, pervasive language, and brief violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.