‘American Hustle’ (2013): Live and Let Die (Review)

David O. Russell could not have come back in better form after taking six years off after the failure of I Heart Huckabees. Taking his bad reputation of behind the scenes tantrums, Russell managed to hit Hollywood harder than ever with The Fighter and later Silver Linings Playbook. His latest, American Hustle, mixes the brilliant actors of both his previous two films making one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Set in 1978 two con-artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), are hired by FBI agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help arrest four other con men. This, somewhat based on a true story, was the sting operation titled: ABSCAM.

Delving a little deeper into the plot of the story reveals that the film has very little to do with the sting operation and more to do with Irving’s affair and love for Sydney. It much resembles Silver Linings Playbook in which Russell sets aside Pat Solitano’s bipolar disorder in place for a more conventional romantic-comedy. However, the plot is the least of what American Hustle has to offer as the aesthetic look of the 1970s couldn’t be more amusing to the eye. Every frame of this picture transports the audience to that time period, making it one of the most genuine moviegoing experiences of the year.

The opening gets a hoot with showing a close-up of Bale’s overweight stomach and tracking up to see his mess of a comb over. Sure, Bale has been known to go through weight change for his different roles, but this is unlike any of his others, especially with having just seen Out of the Furnace three weeks prior. Unlike going from roles like The Machinistย or The Fighter to The Dark Knight, Bale gains an unnerving amount of weight for the role of Irving Rosenfield, but it only adds to his character. It isn’t until where that opening scene goes that you are immediately involved with what these characters are doing, which is what the film is honestly all about: the characters.

Hustle

One of the awe-inspiring aspects of Amy Adams is that she is essentially playing two characters here. The first is Sydney Prosser, a stripper who meets Irving and falls in love only to become his coworker; the second is British aristocrat Edith Greensly. While you think she may be one character, there comes a moment where you think that she may be conning everyone and actually is Ms. Greensly, or the other way around. It is a fantastic character trait that continually keeps you guessing until the end even when the film gives you an answer. Not to mention how foxy Adams is, in and out of her British accent.

It isn’t until Irving and Sydney meet Richie DiMaso that the ABSCAM plot comes forward. Bradley Cooper brought his best performance with David O. Russell last year in Silver Linings Playbook, but he surpasses that thoroughly in the role of nutty DiMaso. Some of the best scenes (actually the most humorous) involve Richie trying to get his operation underway by his boss (Louis C.K.). The way the scenes are shot and the comedic timing between the both of them is wonderful in the darkest of humor. But even when DiMaso is outside the office with Irving and Sydney the scenes spark from quick, witty dialogue that has you constantly wondering who is conning who.

Hustle

The comparisons of American Hustle to films from Martin Scorsese are inescapable, especially Goodfellas. I find it slightly amiss to compare the both of them even with similarities in style or storytelling, however, with what there is to compare it is a fun aspect to watching Russell’s newest work. Especially with having seen The Wolf of Wall Street a week after seeing Hustle, it is obvious who has a better handle on their storytelling, but that doesn’t mean Russell doesn’t construct a great film here. His direction is even paralleled to Scorsese, except Russell likes to make notice of his shooting to be more handheld. The camera swoops, and spins, in an almost gorgeous way especially in the midst of chaos with his characters. I personally love the way Russell shoots his films and Hustle is one of the best looking films of the year with its imagery and production design.

For those who are unaware, the initial screenplay for American Hustle (previously titled American Bullshit) was on the Black List of unproduced screenplays. Written by Eric Singer, Russell came on to co-write, or fix up some things, and the end product is a script that perfectly manages to juxtapose comedy and drama. I’m not entirely sure what elements Russell added to Singer’s script, but it works either way and I have a feeling certain comedic moments are Russell’s touch. There really isn’t a joke that I didn’t find to miss; and with the written jokes there are also physical gags that are humorous because of the excess of the ’70s design.

Hustle

I have briefly talked about the costume and production design, but it really is perfection. With Bale’s comb over and enormous glasses starting out the picture, it really is the look of the rest of the cast that elevate the design. Bradley Cooper’s hair is permed, his attire consists of medallions and opened buttoned shirts; Amy Adams wears nothing but opened shirts showing cleavage; Jeremy Renner who comes in as sympathetic Mayor Carmine Polito has feathered hair that looks ridiculous in all the best ways; and of course there is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s psychotic wife Rosalyn who has wild hair and obsesses about her nail polish. There are little flourishes within scenes that really give the ’70s vibe: Irving is given a microwave by Polito and Rosalyn puts metal in it only to have it explode, Rosalyn being on the extension of the house phone is a nice touch, but the look of the clubs and streets of 1970s New Jersey is unlike anything you will see this year.

A nice pace is given to the film, but eventually the film’s biggest flaw comes in its third act. You have cons after cons, this build up to an ending that you feel should leave you stunned that you didn’t put the pieces together already, but instead it just kind of ends. Imagine watching The Departed, when you are ready to conclude with your own thoughts of who the mole is, accepting Scorsese is just going to leave it open ended, and then it ends like you expect. Instead, that Scorsese masterpiece gives you a final two minutes of perfection that makes you realize what has happened the entire film and you walk out speechless. American Hustle doesn’t have that, but just gives an explanation and concludes. With such a well paced and built up plot being churned by Russell’s direction, having it just turn out all okay is anticlimactic in ways that more of a punch would have sufficed. Again, depending on perception, if you are along for the ride with these characters it won’t be completely destroy the film, but it does make a dent.

I hate using this when explaining what it is like to watch a movie, but in the case of American Hustle I feel it is needed: the film is fun. However, within the fun there is some of the smartest writing this year, wonderful performances and direction, and perfect production design that can’t go unnoticed with an anticlimactic third act that pulls its parachute rather than hitting at full speed. I don’t particularly know as much about the ABSCAM operation as some, but that is also because a lot of the details are still locked away. But that’s okay, because when the film ends and the credits roll, I don’t particularly think David O. Russell did either.

Overall: 8.8/10

Written By Colin

Colin is a writer, blogger, and one-time playwright. He’s always trying to stay busy, but sometimes fails due to the necessity of sleep. Film advocate by day, piracy fighting by night. He will give any movie a chance no matter how bad the word-of-mouth is. There is always this fix he needs to watch a movie or television episode a day, because this is what he loves more than anything. Twitter is the best way to find out what Colin is doing, as he tweets all the time.


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  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Never be afraid to call a film “fun” if that was the experience you had with it. While I definitely did not like the film as much as you did, this is still a really good and easily digestible review. Nice work, as usual, buddy. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • TheVern

    I will agree that the commitment to detail is flawless. Everything from the look of the settings and costumes is just great. But the actual story just bored me. I did not care about Bale or Adams doing the cons because I did not understand or care about their characters. The only one that woke me up while on screen was Jennifer Lawrence. Her character was unpredictable and I never could predict what she would do next. Very interested to read that this script was once Blacklisted. Nice little tidbit of trivia

  • Dan O’Neill

    Good review Colin. Such a fun movie that even when it’s at its messiest, there’s still something to enjoy. Some of that’s thanks to O. Russell, but some of it is definitely thanks to the amazing ensemble that he’s been able to assemble here.

  • Three Rows Back

    Really looking forward to seeing this. Great review.

  • Rodney

    Man, I cannot wait to check this out. Great review, Colin, I’m glad to see Bale and Cooper doing more fine work here. Cooper especially seems to be on a roll!!

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  • fernandorafael_c2c

    Splendid review, Colin! Cannot wait to check this out. It opens Jan. 17 over here!

  • Thanks, V! It’s a shame you didn’t like it as much as I did.

  • I’m sorry Vern, it was on the Black List of unproduced screenplays; it was not blacklisted. I wish you had liked the film more, that’s a shame. I actually felt quite a bit for Irving especially in the third act when he approaches Carmine in his house. I actually (and controversially as the internet thinks) thought Amy Adams outshone Jennifer Lawrence by a long shot. Both were great, but I found Adams the better of the two.

  • Thanks, Dan! I’m glad you liked it as well.

  • Thank you, it’s quite a blast.

  • I hated “The Hangover Part III,” but Cooper is coming in as his own which is great. I’m excited to hear your thoughts on the film when you see it.

  • Thanks, Fernando! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It’s a lot of fun.

  • rich

    colin, considering that you scored it 8.8, i’m wondering what you did not like about it that you took points away. i didn’t notice anything in the review that you complained about.

    i have a little trouble with stories set in a specific time period like this because producers/directors will sometimes spend too much time making everything “look perfect” for the time period but then that focus takes away from the story. i grew up in that area at that time. i was probably about 16 years old, maybe 17. i remember Abscam happening, but i don’t remember the details. how were the details shown in the film? did they get into it enough or did they spend too much time making sure they had the right costumes, music, cars, etc.

    you really seem to have liked this. i will probably see it too, so i’ll come back and let you know what i think. also – movies set around this time almost always have “gimmie shelter” or “sympathy for the devil” or some other stones song. which one did they use?

  • Ries

    Colin said he didn’t like the ending, because he felt like it just “ended”. Also, I think he mentioned that the story is a little unwieldy, and I’m I’m inclined to agree with him on that too, though I didn’t find the movie very funny. I didn’t notice any Rolling Stones in this one, but there was an obsession with the Beatles and with other period music. It’s worth a look, if only for the performances. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Ries

    Great review, Colin. I didn’t find the movie very funny, but I agree with you about O Russell. He’s something else.

  • Thank you, Ries! I’m surprised you didn’t find at least some of it humorous. People seem to be torn on Russell’s recent work as they debate whether he has gotten better or worse. I like the direction he is going and can’t wait to see his next project.

  • As Ries said, my problem was the third act as it doesn’t pack a big enough punch. I actually dedicate most of a paragraph to comparing “Hustle” to “The Departed’s” conclusion ;-). I also don’t think there are any Stones songs in here, but more Zeppelin and The Beatles, which is odd I agree, but a nice change from certain songs we hear all too often in period pieces.

  • rich

    this line specifically – “However, the plot is the least of what American Hustle has to offer as the aesthetic look of the 1970s couldnโ€™t be more amusing to the eye. Every frame of this picture transports the audience to that time period, making it one of the most genuine moviegoing experiences of the year.” is why i hesitated to see the film. i was too afraid it was going to be all “show” and not enough “go.” but there was enough of a story to make it a good film and not just a commercial for 70’s hair, clothing, and music.

    as for scorsese, did you notice that deniro’s glasses looked much like marty’s? i think that was intentional.

  • rich

    saw it, and i’m surprised but i enjoyed it more than i expected. the ending was stupid. as i said in my review, the ending was a cheap way out because russell had likable bad-guy characters, he knew the audience would like them, so he didn’t want them to be punished much. as others have said, the story didn’t really end, just stopped. however, as you said, the performances (except campell) were worth it.

  • rich

    i mean lawrence, not campbell. i constantly say jennifer campbell when i mean jennifer lawrence. duh.