‘American Hustle’ an enjoyable, sprawling mess boosted by an over-the-top ensemble cast

american_hustle_ver6_xlgAmerican Hustle

Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell

Directed by David O. Russell

USA, 2013

Watching American Hustle puts one in mind of the old anecdote relayed by the late Roger Ebert. He wrote of a child prodigy, invited to play an impossibly difficult piece of music on piano for one of the great masters. The prodigy played the composition flawlessly, with no wrong notes or loss of tempo. When it was over, the master told the prodigy, “You can play the notes. One day, you may play the music.” Though it may be a challenge to pin down exactly who that old master is to David O. Russell, he is still the prodigy. American Hustle, his new film, is a feverish and sprawling blend of farcical comic and period-piece trappings, top-lined by an impressive ensemble cast, but it lacks focus. In short, this is a mess. An enjoyable mess, but a mess to be sure.

Christian Bale, sporting a comically terrible comb-over and a prosthetic beer belly, plays Irving Rosenfield, a con artist in the late 1970s who, along with his gorgeous partner in crime Sydney (Amy Adams), is forced to work for the FBI in a sting that’s meant to lure out corrupt politicians. Their handler (Bradley Cooper, just as manic here as he was in Silver Linings Playbook) is desperate for a big score, and willing to do whatever is needed so he can grab the spotlight. Irving, as shrewd as he is, begins to get something of a soft spot for his initial mark, a New Jersey mayor played by a goofily coiffed Jeremy Renner. And then there’s the matter of Irving’s young, blowsy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who has a nasty habit of opening her mouth at the wrong time.

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What American Hustle offers is proof of how good acting can save just about any project. As much as the film frequently evokes a live-action cartoon of sorts—the actors’ wigs always look this close to falling off their heads, as if the costumers ran out of spirit glue—the main quintet, along with supporting players like Louis C.K., Michael Pena, and Jack Huston, are fiercely committed to…well, if not the scattershot material, the opportunity to play in this improvisational sandbox. Adams, in particular, is excellent as Sydney, a woman who can barely stand being herself, a stripper in a dead-end world; she’d rather be anyone else, reinventing herself first as a journalist at Cosmopolitan by sheer will and luck, then as Irving’s willing (and far more clever) accomplice. By now, perhaps, it is pointless to restate it, but Amy Adams is one of the best actresses of her generation, if not the very best, and her work in American Hustle is a testament to her subtle power and range as a performer.

And maybe it’s no coincidence that Adams delivers the best performance by not overacting to the rafters. To be clear, watching Cooper (seen once wearing pink curlers, because…comedy), Lawrence, or Bale jump so far over the top that a return to Earth is unlikely is not without its charms. In truth, Bale comes closest to underplaying as Irving, in spite of all the prosthetics hiding the dashing leading man from the audience. But even his choice to be more internal results in a few moments where he’s almost whispering his lines to the point of being impossible to hear. Cooper, as close as the film comes to having a villain, is both ridiculous and magnetic as an FBI agent whose tactics are outrageously illegal, so much so that it’s amazing to see how long he avoids getting caught for his misdeeds. When he’s on screen, it’s a marvel that Cooper ever stops talking, as he seems mostly unable to let silence fill any room in which he stands or sits. And then there’s Lawrence, doing her very best to keep up with the rest of the ensemble (Renner is fine, but frequently recedes into the background). Her character is most feared, because she relishes the opportunity to ruin the operation the feds have built with Irving and Sydney. But when we see her, she’s often berating her much older husband in an outrageously passive-aggressive fashion, or, at one point, singing and dancing along to “Live and Let Die,” because…well, why not?

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A similar theme of blissful disregard for coherency runs rampant in the film. Throughout all of this wildness is the knowledge that American Hustle is at least inspired by real events, specifically the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s, which caught a few politicians in a fraud scheme. The title card at the opening of the film informs us that “Some of this actually happened,” but it’s a fool’s errand to figure out what’s real and what isn’t. Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer are, it seems, uninterested with capturing the accuracy of this event, which is fine. What isn’t as acceptable is that they seem most fascinated by the ability to get big-name actors to play dress-up. Here is where that anecdote about the child prodigy comes back into play. The opening scene of American Hustle shows Irving, in silence (a rarity, as the soundtrack is wall-to-wall with popular songs of the period), adjusting his combed-over hair patiently, further emphasizing exactly how fabricated this entire enterprise is. David O. Russell has created a fast-paced, slightly overlong, coke-fueled vision of American excess in the 1970s, but he follows in the footsteps of other great filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson. No doubt, American Hustle is goofy fun, but it stands in the shadows of great masters, unable to play the music even if it knows the notes.

— Josh Spiegel

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