December 23, 2013

American Hustle

David O. Russell, 2013
Russell's latest work is actually a difficult film to explain to someone when they ask you to describe the plot. "Okay.. so there's this con-man and his lover who cheat desperate people out of black market loans who then get caught and have to assist the FBI in taking down some politicians while also at the same time try to handcuff the investigation to the mob by promising Middle Eastern financial backing in rebuilding the Atlantic City casinos. You got all of that right?"

Scorcese gave his keys to Russell and told him to bring it back in one piece. He did, and he took it for a nice long spin in this con-artist crime drama/gangster story/quirky comedy/period piece. The nod to Scorcese is blatant: the narrative, the tracking shots, MOS sequences set to music, the gangster motif, the Big Apple backdrop. The casting office even called for a couple of Boardwalk Empire's guys. But it's also very David O. Russell. At times the film solicits laughter reminiscent of his comedic style in Flirting with Disaster. Russell puts on his Sounds of the 70's compilation and plays with one of his signature elements of taking that classic song you've heard a million times and putting a visual component in there that makes it seem like you're hearing it differently. 

Christian Bale morphs into his role as chubby con-artist (hair piece included) Irving Rosenfeld and continues to prove that he's one of the best actors working today. If his character didn't possess the nuance that Bale was able to bring to the role, it just wouldn't work. Jennifer Lawrence takes her already great performance in Silver Linings Playbook and goes off her meds, taking it to another level as a vindictive hot mess. Her distorted reality from being confined at home. The manipulative tendencies. Seething jealousy. Bradley Cooper's character is similar to his character in The Place Beyond the Pines in the sense that he's a government worker trying to make his mark. He's always been overlooked. He can almost smell success, it's so close. He wants it so badly. Amy Adams plays the classy Sydney Prosser, who wants nice things and is willing to trade her morals for companionship. Renner's performance as Camden Mayor Carmine Polito is more subtle but it has a certain plangency to it. You know whats going to happen to him. And it should bother you even after the film is over. Some surprising faces even turn up - one of which is un-credited.

Enough can't be said about the performances in the film. The cast deserves much praise, as well as Russell for being able to collaborate with such a pool of talent. It's especially impressive to discover that 20% of the film was improvised which again speaks well for the Russell's confidence. But outside of the great performances, the film feels too elaborate. While Russell's The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook had a more youthful feel -  American Hustle seems to be a film made for the older crowd. Probably the crowd who grew up the 1970's. It's surely a subjective movie (aren't they all), likely to be lauded by many and not so much by others. But either way you're bound to feel satisfaction on some level because the acting gives you your money's worth an hour into the picture. 

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