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With: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pea, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rhm, Paul Herman, Robert De Niro
Written by: David O. Russell, Eric Warren Singer
Directed by: David O. Russell
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Running Time: 138
Date: 12/13/2013

American Hustle (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Dirty Work

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I saw David O. Russell's American Hustle the day after the New York Film Critics Circle named it the best film of the year, and awarded its screenplay as well as Jennifer Lawrence as Best Supporting Actress. It's hard to walk into a screening and forget that information, to not be affected by it. There's a huge temptation to either confirm their decision, or deny it.

I can't say how I did, but my inclination is to say that American Hustle is a good film, and an enjoyable one, but a far cry from the year's best movie. It wouldn't really even make my top 25. I will add that it's better than Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, but not as good as his The Fighter.

It sure had me in its clutches at the start, though. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), slightly overweight, in a bad 1970s suit, stands in front of a mirror and begins an elaborate process of turning his balding head into a complex combover. He's about to enter into some kind of tense situation, some kind of money exchange, with two others, lovely Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and high-strung Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). There appears to be some sexual tension between these three, but otherwise we know nothing, and it's intriguing.

Alas, this turns out to be one of the oldest screenwriting tricks in the book. If your story's beginning is boring, you simply flash-forward to a more exciting event from the middle. If your movie has no other flashbacks or flash-forwards besides this one, which is the case with American Hustle, then it's cheap device and not an organic part of the story.

After this flash-forward, the movie goes back to the standard "based on a true story" format. We get a date stamped on the screen and we see how the characters meet, while voiceover narration is used to say how they're feeling. Unfortunately, like the flash-forward, the narration is also eventually dropped, making it the second of the movie's cheap devices. (I like narration, but it must be used consistently, and with some purpose.)

Anyway, it seems that Irving is a kind of low-rent con man who pretends to get loans for high-risk people, collects a fee, and then -- sadly -- can't deliver the loan. Irving meets Sydney at a party (they bond over Duke Ellington), and they hit it off. They kiss inside the rotating clothing rack at Irving's dry-cleaning shop (his one legitimate business). She becomes fascinated with his loan scheme. She develops an English-accented "character" to help and make their scheme even more irresistible.

Things go well, until they are entrapped by an FBI agent, Richie. He hatches a plan, using their services to try and snag as many corrupt politicians as possible, thereby insuring his rise in the department. The three of them invent a scheme involving a fake sheikh who wishes to invest money in building casinos in New Jersey. As expected in this kind of movie, there's also a final "twist."

The aforementioned Lawrence has a very showy role as Irving's lawfully-wedded wife Rosalyn. She's a gabby, gaudy horror, and has Irving under her thumb, as he has legally adopted her son and she refuses to grant him a divorce. Rosalyn wends her way into the movie's hustle, causing extra trouble and drama. Other actors, like Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., and Robert De Niro, seem to be here just for show. Likewise, the young boy character -- Rosalyn's son -- is a distraction, sometimes in potential danger, overhearing terrible arguments, and generally just another plot device.

Russell has always been a loose cannon of a director, oftentimes taking artistic risks, and other times playing it safe, but not yet establishing a signature style. American Hustle owes little to his own work, and a great deal to GoodFellas, Casino, and Boogie Nights. It uses dozens of 1970s-era pop songs for mood, enough for a double-sized soundtrack album of Gumpian proportions. The camera zooms in on characters during triumphant moments, or switches to slo-mo for effect. It's all been done before.

Yet despite all this copycatting, the movie still has an interesting energy, and a genuine concern for the characters. Most of them spring to life, especially Bale's Irving and Adams' Sydney. They're clever and interesting, and yet vulnerable and wary. It's compelling to watch their relationship flex and stretch under the strain of their activities.

I think the confusion is that American Hustle seems like an important movie, with an impressive title, an impressive cast -- assembled from two recent Oscar winning movies -- and an Oscar-nominated director, as well as an impressive running time and a prestigious release date. All of those things can create an illusion of something that needs to be respected and admired. But if you can embrace the possibility of a good movie instead of a great one, you won't be disappointed.

After all the year-end buzz for this prestige project, followed by ten Oscar nominations and no wins, Sony Pictures Home Video has released a pretty bare-bones Blu-ray/DVD combo edition. It comes with a routine 16-minute "making-of" featurette, approved by the studio, as well as 22 minutes of deleted/extended scenes, and trailers for other Sony releases. Blu-ray quality is fine, though sometimes emphasizing the garish quality of the cinematography. The 1970s pop songs sound bold and strong.

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