Friday, December 27, 2013

American Hustle / *** (R)

Irving Rosenfeld: Christian Bale
Sydney Prosser: Amy Adams
Richie DeMaso: Bradley Cooper
Carmine Polito: Jeremy Renner
Rosalyn Rosenfeld: Jennifer Lawrence
Stoddard Thorsen: Louis C.K.

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by David O. Russell. Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. Running time: 138 min. Rated R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence).

David O. Russell’s latest film, “American Hustle”, is one of those 70s costume crime pieces that tells a somewhat true story about a New York grifter couple who graduate from small time embezzlement to the big leagues when an FBI ladder climber catches them with their hand in the cookie jar. It has all the glitz and hairpieces expected from the genre. It’s well made and contains some wonderful performances from its star-studded cast. However, it lacks some of the zeal for which it strives. It hits all the right notes, but never finds much of a purpose for itself beyond being an excuse to pull out some bad wigs and the wide collars. Told from several points of view, it feels like Russell is trying to make his own “GoodFellas”, but he lacks some of Scorsese’s kinetic gifts.

It tells the story of Irving Rosenfeld, a balding, pot bellied con man, who has taken his family dry cleaning business and spun it as a front for some less legitimate lines of retail. He runs loan schemes, and sells stolen and counterfeit artwork. When he meets Sydney Prosser at a Long Island pool party, he’s met the woman who was made for him. Sydney doesn’t go by her real name anymore, but rather has recreated herself as a British aristocrat named Lady Edith Greensly. Although she notes Rosenfeld’s lack of physical attractiveness, she is drawn to him both intellectually and sexually by pure spirit of heart.

Agent Richie DeMaso, who has dreams of catching the big fish, nabs the two in an FBI sting. DeMaso goes around his boss—Louis C.K. in the most surprising performance of the film—to rope in some politicians with Irving’s confidence skills, including the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito. Politio is essentially a good man trying to grow New Jersey’s economy by reopening the Atlantic City casinos. DeMaso’s higher stakes make Rosenfeld uncomfortable, especially when some big name mobsters get involved in the casino scheme. Robert DeNiro fittingly appears unbilled as Meyer Lansky’s second-in-command, Victor Tellegio.

The movie is structured very much like “GoodFellas”, starting with a scene from the middle of the story and then flashing back to explain who these people are and how they arrived in their situations. Rosenfeld and Prosser tell their stories, each providing voiceover narration. Prosser’s narration seems unnecessary, as the whole story could be told from Rosenfeld’s point of view. I also wonder how much the broken timeline structure helps the story. It makes for a confusing start. While it’s kind of a con movie tradition to make the con confusing to the audience, it seems Rosenfeld’s cons are based on making his clients think they know exactly what’s going on only to find the rug pulled out from under them later.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are solid leads as Rosenfeld and Prosser. Bale has this amazing ability to act through his frumpy appearance and convey his appeal to Prosser. Russell perhaps makes too much of Rosenfeld’s vanity too early. It would draw less attention to the make-up work if he’d held off until later in the story. Of course, Rosenfeld and Prosser’s relationship is complicated by the fact that Rosenfeld is already married. Although, there is no love in their arrangement, Rosenfeld has come to love his wife’s son, whom he has adopted.

Jennifer Lawrence plays the wife as a wild card, who threatens to destroy everything once the stakes have risen beyond Rosenfeld’s control. This is because of DeMaso’s near psychotic drive to get the biggest names he can despite the fact that he is so far out of his depth he’s doomed to failure. Bradley Cooper plays DeMaso as if he’s seen too many cop movies and thinks it’s all as easy as it is in Hollywood. He’s like a child with a broken toy when things don’t work out his way.

“American Hustle” is a good movie. The production design—from the moment the company logos run—immerses the audience in the time period of the late 70s. Despite its confusing beginning, the con is clear in the end and the fates of the characters are satisfying. Perhaps a bit too satisfying, as if what they’ve pulled off was a little too easy, especially with the stakes involved. At one point it seems there’s no way out for anyone that doesn’t involve some dirt, a shovel, and a 10 by 20 foot plot of land. Their solution seems more like child’s play than a real criminal act.

Again, I don’t mean to talk down this movie as much as I have. It’s an enjoyable period crime procedural. It has wonderful performances and transports the audience to a unique and specific time and lifestyle. It just seems to be trying to be more than it really is at times. David O. Russell’s early films—like the Gulf War film “Three Kings”—were purely original. His last few pictures, including “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”, seem to be adhering to a previously established Hollywood standard. “American Hustle” falls right in line with that trend. This doesn’t feel like a great movie to me. It isn’t a crime classic like “GoodFellas” or “The Godfather”. It is worth the time to watch it, however.

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