Monday, June 9, 2014

American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell.
2013. Rated R, 138 minutes.
Christian Bale
Amy Adams
Bradley Cooper
Jennifer Lawrence
Jeremy Renner
Robert De Niro
Louis C.K.
Michael Pena
Shea Whigham
Elisabeth Rohm

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and his girlfriend (Sydney Prosser) are a successful pair of con artists with their hands in a few different pots. They're ripping fools off and keeping them on a string all while enjoying each other's company. Life is good. Things change when they get busted by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). After applying some pressure, Richie tells the couple they can get off cleanly if they agree to help him make four more arrests. The problem in everyone's eyes except Richie's is that the targets get increasingly larger in profile and difficulty to ensnare. Complicating things even furhter is Irving's wife Rosalyn (Lawrence). She won't let her husband go even though it's obvious he no longer wants to be married, at least to her. She's also on the unstable side. Her unpredictability threatens to bring down the whole operation.

As he has in the past, director David O. Russell proves to be extremely adept at not only telling his story almost completely through dialogue, but having it remain entertaining all the way through. In a great many films, the words people are saying are merely perfunctory. Characters say enough to advance the plot. The trick Russell pulls is that in addition to propelling our story, these people seem to be living and dying with each conversation. It's something he used to great effect in Silver Linings Playbook. Here, he may have one upped himself. In SLP, the characters merely believed their lives were hanging in the balance as they spilled their guts. To an extent, they were as we were dealing with a number of people with fragile psyches. In American Hustle, that extent reaches the literal level. There is a real chance the our heroes will turn up dead as a result of one conversation or another.

To make all that talking work, Russell needs the help of his magnificent cast. The ensemble delivers and then some. Much of the hype surrounding this movie's performances focused on the work of the two ladies we see most: Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Both are tremendous and more than earned their Oscar nominations. Adams continues a recent stretch of excellent performances that started with her turn in The Master and even includes her underrated work in Man of Steel. This time, she shows us a woman who is smart, despite some of her own decisions. She's in love with a guy that she recognizes she can never fully have if she continues to stay with him the way things are. She also know she can't reach the heights she aspires to without him. Meanwhile, Lawrence gives us another phenomenal portrayal of a woman with questionable sanity. When this past awards season rolled around I started to read and hear a lot of moaning and groaning about the love Lawrence was getting. Most accused the Academy of favoritism, or just giving her a nod because she's a popular and highly bankable actress. I think she was legitimately outstanding. She shared scenes with Adams, Cooper, and most often, Bale, and each time she was the most captivating person on the screen.

None of this is to suggest that the men were not good. As a group, they were just as good as the ladies, if not better due to sheer quantity. Bradley Cooper continues to distance himself from being just a pretty face. The fact that we can feel his character's ambition jumping off the screen earned him an Oscar nomination, too. Also continuing is David O. Russell's resurrection of Rober De Niro. For the first time since the 1990s, we get a totally scary Bobby D. He only gets a few minutes of screen time, but it is an intense pocket of time. On the opposite end of the spectrum is comedian Louis C.K. as Cooper's boss. It's a wonderful comic relief role that he pulls off without doing anything that would qualify as zany. Between DeNiro and C.K. is a perfect Jeremy Renner as Mayor Carmine Polito. Everything about him feels exactly right.

Then there's Christian Bale. He once again throw his entire body into his work, physically transforming into the person he's playing. Lots of actors, some excellent ones included, simply play themselves in multiple movies. This isn't the case with Bale. Trevor Reznik (The Machinist), Dicky Eklund (The Fighter), and Bruce Wayne (The Dark Knight Trilogy) all share a similar face, but are very clearly different men. Bale completely disappears into his characters and Irving Rosenfeld is no exception. It yet another impressive turn by an amazing actor.

The larger plot, the one about trying to make the busts, is really of secondary importance to our enjoyment of American Hustle. It's an interesting tale that provides some tense moments, but it isn't what compels us to watch. The dynamics between the various characters is what does this. How these people interact and feel, or don't feel, for each other keeps us engaged. Whether or not any of them is someone we like is debatable. What is not open for discussion is that these are magnetic personas. We struggle to peel our eyes away from any of them. We can also see each of their points of view. This helps us understand their motivations. Armed with this knowledge, we can easily empathize with them as their various objectives seem to get further away. Propelled by an amazing cast and enhanced by sure direction, American Hustle is a very enjoyable experience.

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