American Hustle review: the humor, it burns

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American Hustle green light Amy Adams Christian Bale

Bursting with insanely engaging characters who are impossibly real and impossibly ridiculous whose stories you don’t ever want to end.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Russell, love the cast, got a great good shiver of awesome off the trailer

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s gotta be a coincidence that just as Martin Scorsese appears to be repeating himself with Wolf of Wall Street — which looks like pretty much the exact same movie as GoodFellas (though I haven’t seen Wolf yet because Paramount is being weird about it) — here comes David O. Russell to up the ante on Scorsese. Right? Because there’s no way Russell could have planned this, film release dates being as fluid as they are. And yet, there are things here that made me gasp and marvel at Russell’s audacity in tweaking the master of the genre he’s playing in.

I don’t even know what to call that genre. Crime drama, sure, but it’s more specific than that. Epic ensemble historical crime dramedy, more like. Narrower still: Epic ensemble historical crime dramedy bursting with insanely engaging characters who are impossibly real and impossibly ridiculous whose stories you don’t ever want to end. It was a genre of one prior to now: GoodFellas is a rare perfect movie, and it’s one of my very favorites.

And now there’s American Hustle, also perfect, also instantly a favorite of mine. I can’t wait to see it again.

The thing is, nobody here is particularly likable. Christian Bale and Amy Adams’ con team are criminals who prey on desperate people and get off on it. He’s married — for all the wrong reasons — and unfaithful; he’s not a very nice guy. Jennifer Lawrence is his manipulative, passive-aggressive wife. Bradley Cooper is an FBI agent with more balls than brains (and he’s got plenty brains). But they’re all utterly, utterly fascinating. Like a 50-car pileup on the highway, but still. The magnificent ensemble embody them and their absurd quirks — almost all revolving around scary 1970s fashion and hair — with a gusto that is close to terrifying, in the most deliciously entertaining way. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, Three Kings), in his script (with Eric Warren Singer: The International), sets them upon one another to do some very precise damage to exposed weaknesses and anxieties, which are abundant. The first such moment comes mere minutes into the film, something so hilariously targeted — and so unexpectedly so — by one vain man at another vain man’s insecurities that it ripped a snort of deranged laughter from me.

Hustle did that to me a lot, in fact. Everything here is perfectly modulated for humor and pathos and acrimony all at the same time — I laughed, but it was bitter laughter. Even though this is set in the late 70s — it’s a fictional story set amongst a real FBI operation of the era — the push-and-pull Russell sets up for his story between the everyday scratching out of mere survival and the desire for life to be something grander and more exciting feels very of the now. Irving Rosenfeld (Bale: The Dark Knight Rises, Public Enemies) and his “genius” (and she is) partner Sydney Prosser (Adams: Man of Steel, Trouble with the Curve) just want to get by, which is why they kept their cons small and under the radar. (This role was a daring choice for Adams, and she makes it work. I didn’t realize she had this sort of hands-dirty grit in her. She’s divine.) But when they accidentally try to con the wrong guy in undercover agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper: The Hangover Part III, The Place Beyond the Pines), he convinces them to work with him to pull off a series of stings in exchange for staying out of prison. The final job is the ever-growing disaster that balloons up to fill the film.

And so Hustle is awesome cheesy 70s rock on the soundtrack, stories about ice fishing and warnings about those newfangled microwave ovens, lapels wide enough to put someone’s eye out (the women’s clothes still look mostly fab, though), and terrible perms. And it’s Irving’s increasing dismay as DiMaso’s ambition, which is towering only in the way that a Jenga game is, leads them into bigger plots designed to bring down ever more powerful men — from mayors to mob kingpins to federal politicians — and with ever more multimilliony dollar amounts at stake. (For Irving, a good con would bring in five grand. His multiple invisible facepalms here as dollar amounts tick up outside his control are snort-inducing uproarious. So is Louis C.K. [The Invention of Lying, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins] as DiMaso’s increasingly exasperated FBI boss.) It gets intriguingly tricksy, too, as Jeremy Renner (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Bourne Legacy) as Joe Pesci as Carmine Polito, mayor of Camden, New Jersey, gets caught in DiMaso’s snare. Polito wants to rebuild Atlantic City as a jobs-creating and economy-boosting measure, and just needs investors… which invariably will involve the mafia. But is Polito a bad guy? Does he deserve to be the target of an FBI sting? Irving isn’t so sure…

“Some of this actually happened,” we are informed as the film opens. The genius of Hustle is that it leads us around to a point at which we realize it’s all kind of happening all the time, in a grimy spiritual sense. “We’re all conning ourselves,” Irving informs us in voiceover early in the film, while we’re still scoffing at how ridiculous he is and how, of course, we couldn’t possibly be like him. But the multiple layers of self-delusional at play among all the characters, and the events that carry them along in spite of their best intentions otherwise? Yeah, that’s something we can all see in ourselves, if we’re honest.

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Sat, Dec 14, 2013 1:43am

I’m with you – this is so good – can’t wait to see it again – you feel the characters – I fell in love with them all -thanks to the great actors.

Sun, Dec 15, 2013 4:53pm

We may just end up looking back at this era of filmmaking as an equal to any of the great golden ages of acting in cinema. The fact that all the primary actors in this film are wildly popular box office draws *and* Oscar-nominated/winning acting powerhouses *and* they seem to be getting the full support of the studio to do an off-the-wall project like this . . . Yes, rumors of the death of American cinema are, as usual, greatly exaggerated.

Me, I’m just giddy at getting to watch Amy Adams *and* Jennifer Lawrence in the same movie. Be still, my beating heart.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  MisterAntrobus
Sun, Dec 15, 2013 9:51pm

Adams and Lawrence mostly aren’t onscreen together, but they have one moment together that is extraordinary.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Dec 15, 2013 10:16pm

That’s good enough for me.

jimmie t. murakami
jimmie t. murakami
Wed, Jan 01, 2014 7:54am

MaryAnn, films like “American Hustle” are so ludicrously out-moded now, they were OK back in the 1970`s but now they seem like some kind of laughable celluloid anachronism from a by-gone era.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  jimmie t. murakami
Wed, Jan 01, 2014 2:06pm

Oh, okay then. Thanks for setting me straight.

Sat, Jan 25, 2014 2:10am

I agree with you – this is close to my favorite flick of last year (though I’m still very fond of Gravity). What I love about this movie in particular was Amy Adams, who, in many ways, was the brains of the operation. And Christian Bale, went from playing a tightly wound steelworker in Out of the Furnace to playing Irving who was all over the place. Someone told me that David O. Russell characters talk fast – I missed that. Maybe I’m living in a David O. Russell movie… ;-?