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American Hustle

American-hustle

Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K.

Bad hair and bad decisions are the order of the day in this blackly comic thriller, loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s.

Balding, bloated businessman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a conman, pure and simple. With his partner/lover, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), he dabbles in art forgeries, but his main hustle is stinging desperate businessmen for fake loan guarantees at five grand a pop. When the pair are pinched by an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the only way to avoid prosecution is by helping him in an elaborate sting operation. Playing for the highest possible stakes, the duplicitous duo must hustle harder than ever, dealing with not only the increasingly manic DiMaso, but also affably corrupt New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and his mafia associates.

It’s a pastiche, of course. Hell, it’s damn near Scorsese fanfic, with director David O. Russell (The Fighter, The Silver Linings Playbook) and his impressive cast delighting in pushing the tropes of ‘70s New Hollywood right up to the point of absurdity. The voiceovers, the near-constant montage sequences, the constantly roving, restless camera and, of course, the period costumes and sets all contribute to the feeling that isn’t a new film, but some lost gem from the last great golden age of cinema. Russell even has the chutzpah to have Robert De Niro crop up for a brief turn as a grizzled mob boss, just to hammer the point home.

Unlike last year’s Argo, which lifted from post-Watergate political dramas with straight-faced seriousness, American Hustle winks at the audience, transforming what could have been a rather strained attempt at affectation into a fun romp. Everyone’s having a blast portraying the film’s gallery of self-deluded grotesques, with Bale in particular seeming much more comfortable now he’s shed the action hero straitjacket. The whole affair is a tightrope walk along the line between drama and farce, and all involved seem to understand the exact level at which to pitch their performances. Jennifer Lawrence shines (as usual) as Rosenfeld’s mercurial, self-absorbed wife, while Louis C.K. puts his worn-down schlub persona to good use as DiMaso’s put upon boss. There’s not a bum note to be found, and doubtless the cast will get a good showing when the big award nominations come rolling in early next year.

Still, as much as its an enjoyable ride, American Hustle is ultimately a pretty slight affair. It’s big, bold, bright and boisterous, but it’s not really about anything; the end, when it comes, is abrupt and rather unsatisfactory. Still, the journey up until that point is so much fun that such a failing is easily forgivable. As an exercise in style, Hustle knocks it out of the park; hopefully, Russell’s next offering will find his obvious technical skill in service to some substance.

TRAVIS JOHNSON

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