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Great acting shakesdown “American Hustle”
AMERICAN HUSTLE” ISN’T QUITE THE SHAKEDOWN FILM YOU MIGHT EXPECT. Despite being about con artists, it doesn’t follow the formula of films like “The Sting” or “Oceans 11”—those films had extremely attractive people doing impossibly complicated operations to steal enormous amounts of money from very dangerous people.
“American Hustle” isn’t like that. Instead, it features a small-time smooth operator with a gravity-defying combover and a closet full of velvet leisure suits. The film is funny in a sort of inexplicable way. It’s not like watching the amplified excess of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” with stunned, wide-eyed disbelief at the behavior of grown men.
It’s not the groan-inducing discomfort found in the films of Melissa McCarthy. The humor is rooted in the realism behind the characters, which exist in this strange backdoor universe of the 1970s. The film is part nostalgia, part character study, part crime drama—it’s fascinating to watch and genuinely engaging, if a bit slow in certain parts. “American Hustle” isn’t quite as wonderful as its reputation suggests, but the performances make up for any limitations in the story.
The story is loosely based on a real FBI investigation that happened in the late ’70s, one that led to corruption convictions for several congressmen, a member of the New Jersey state senate, a few members of the Philadelphia city council, and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey.
The plot hinges on the participation of two low-level charlatans who run a fake loan scam in New York City. Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) is an overweight, bald, tacky man who inexplicably attracts the attention of the beautiful Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Irving has been a hustler for most of his life, starting young by breaking windows in his neighborhood to drum up business for his father’s glass company.
Sydney is a transplant to the city, a woman who wants only to be anyone other than who she really is. The two meet at a party and begin a relationship, which later evolves into a professional one, as Sydney adopts the identity of a wealthy British aristocrat to lend credence to the lie that their loans are backed by British bankers.
Their activity attracts the attention of Richie Di Masso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious young FBI agent who breaks up their scam and threatens them with jail time unless they help him land bigger fish for the bureau.
While Bale and Adams soak up a majority of the screen time, the movie is stolen by Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Irving’s lazy, New Jersey housewife. Irving married her long before meeting Sydney, adopted her son, and while he no longer wants to be married, he stays out of duty to the child. Lawrence is electric on the screen, creating a character sympathetic and horrible, a real person out of what a lesser actor might have played as a stereotype. Scenes between Lawrence and Bale are absolutely engrossing.
The film uses her sparingly, as a foil to both Irving and Sydney, but like Falstaff or “The Hangover”’s Alan; she is a presence that the audience does not forget and craves more from. Luckily, a director the caliber of David O. Russell is unlikely to bring her back for her own spin-off.
All the actors in the film are excellent—I certainly don’t want to disparage their performances—but Lawrence created something much more memorable, further solidifying her place among the best Hollywood has to offer.
“American Hustle” is yet another film from David O. Russell that is likely to be nominated for an Oscar. He pulls from a familiar stable of actors, like most good directors, and the combination of talent from both “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” is truly something to behold. “American Hustle” deserves the nomination more than “Silver Linings Playbook”—it’s a better film and doesn’t have the cookie-cutter romance ending kept “Silver Linings” from resonating emotionally as much as it hoped.
“American Hustle” is more straightforward as a comedy, and its ending is already recorded in history. The film may not be nominated for Best Picture, but there’s a “Best Supporting Actress” nomination waiting for Jennifer Lawrence very soon.