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American Hustle Movie Review

American Hustle (2013) movie poster American Hustle

Theatrical Release: December 13, 2013 / Running Time: 129 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: David O. Russell / Writers: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser/Lady Edith Greensly), Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Louis C.K. (Stoddard Thorsen), Jack Huston (Pete Musane), Michael Pena (Paco Hernandez/Sheik Abdullah), Shea Whigham (Carl Elway), Alessandro Nivola (Anthony Amado), Elisabeth Rohm (Dolly Polito), Paul Herman (Alfonse Simone), Said Taghmaoui (Irv's Sheik Plant), Matthew Russell (Dominic Polito), Thomas Matthews (Francis Polito), Adrian Martinez (Julius), Anthony Zerbe (Senator Horton Mitchell), Colleen Camp (Brenda), Steve Gagliastro (Agent Schmidt), Chris Tarjan (Agent Stock), Zachariah Supka (Young Irv), Robert De Niro (Victor Tellegio - uncredited)

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For the third time in four years, David O. Russell has directed one of the best films of the year. American Hustle reunites Russell with four focal cast members of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, all of whom either won or were nominated for an Oscar for those films.
Despite the tall expectations rising from that track record and a release date just before Christmas, this latest collaboration is as much of a dream as it sounds like, making it one awards contender to completely live up to its hype.

After dramatizing the 1990s in The Fighter and the end of 2008 in Silver Linings, Russell turns his attentions to the late 1970s here with co-writer Eric Warren Singer (The International). American Hustle is styled accordingly and fitted with tunes from the period while acclimating the director to true crime, a genre he hasn't previously attempted. Russell does not bind himself to the facts of the FBI's Abscam sting operation, nor does he let its weight stifle his rare gift for humorous drama. The film is consistently funny enough to condone the Golden Globes' insistence on Comedy or Musical classification, a move that makes it a favorite in that category, even with creative campaigning giving it stiffer competition than usual.

The five principals of "American Hustle" -- Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence -- share a glitzy walk.

Hustle opens with the amusing image of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) getting his comb-over in order, a ballet that requires patience, precision, a patch of fake hair and some glue. Bale has once again committed to his craft for Russell, this time transitioning from the frail Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight Rises to a fat middle-aged man whose protruding gut and meaty hands require no prosthetics. Irving is the owner of a chain of New York area dry cleaners. He's also a dealer of forged artwork and a con man who preys upon the desperate, promising them, as no other financial institution would, some capital in exchange for $5,000 and plenty of collateral. The scam, which Irving never makes good on, gets his lover and partner in crime, Edith (Amy Adams), into trouble with undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).

After subjecting Edith to days in a bed-less, window-less cell, Richie pitches the one way she can be helped: having Richie and Edith use their swindling expertise to expose to conviction bigger corruption around the Tri-State Area. The operation sets its sights as high as a beloved New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), whose trust and friendship Irving quickly wins.

The sting operation involves someone posing as a wealthy sheik (sometimes Michael Peña) who is willing to do under-the-table business with politicians. Complicating the work of Irving, the sometimes-British Edith, and Richie is the fact that the three collaborators are simultaneously engaged in a love triangle. Edith, who's also known as Sydney, seems ready to leave Irving for the exciting, perm-topped Richie. It's tough to blame her since Irving can't seem to part with his not completely stable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whose young son he has adopted and is helping to raise.

Irving (Christian Bale) points out a fake hanging in the Frick Museum to Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and mistress/business partner Edith/Sydney (Amy Adams) confront one another in the Grand Old AC Hotel powder room in their first shared encounter.

In composition and setting, American Hustle recalls Argo, Ben Affleck's crowd-pleasing Iran hostage caper that managed to win 2012's Best Picture Oscar over more traditional and timely fare. I hope that Argo's victory doesn't diminish Hustle's chances at winning the industry's top prize, because no other 2013 release I've seen is as deserving of accolades.

Once again, Russell has drawn dynamite performances from a highly talented cast. Actors of this caliber have their pick of Hollywood's most prestigious projects, but the decision to return to Russell is a no-brainer, since no one else in town has screenplays as human or characters as three-dimensional.
Each of the lead roles and even many of the smaller ones afford actors an opportunity to stretch and prove themselves. Everyone has a bold 1970s hairdo and fashion sensibility, an accent, and a complex backstory or family life. In a lesser film, such flourishes might distract or overshadow the story. Happily, this extraordinary company ensures that style complements substance instead of trumping it.

With this film, Russell announces himself as a Martin Scorsese fan (what filmmaker isn't?). Hustle recalls the crime classics Goodfellas and Casino. Like those, it is full of wonderful texture and period detail. That said, many a poor film has emulated Scorsese's opuses down to Ray Liotta-esque voiceover. While comparisons are inevitable, Russell doesn't lean too heavily on Scorsese's playbook. Though plentiful, profanity isn't quite wall to wall. As the MPAA's R rating explains, violence is brief. There isn't a single gun fired and the most graphic conflict involves a telephone and is played for laughs. Russell also doesn't aspire to Scorsese's epic runtimes. At 129 minutes, Hustle is barely longer than Russell's other films and exactly as long as it needs to be. The homage to Scorsese even seems to carry a blessing, as -- possible spoiler alert -- Robert De Niro makes an unadvertised and arresting appearance as a Miami kingpin who feels like he could be an aged version of one of his mobster characters. (For those keeping track, Russell has now given De Niro two of his best film credits since the actor's last Scorsese film 18 years ago.) That moment has the added humor of De Niro staring down Bale, who is very clearly channeling him here.

Dazzling with compelling, unpredictable storytelling, rich personalities, technical splendor, and so much flavor, American Hustle delights in just about every way it can. Silver Linings became only the 14th film -- and the first in over thirty years -- to pick up nominations in all four of the Oscars' acting categories. I would be sorely disappointed if Hustle doesn't repeat the feat. Not only do Bale, Adams, Cooper and Lawrence deserve such recognition for their excellent work, but their roles so perfectly conform to the categories they're being advocated for. In fact, two-time nominee Renner wouldn't be out of place joining Cooper in the Supporting Actor field, as unlikely as that would be. As should be clear to you by now, this is a film that ought to feature on Oscar night well beyond the acting categories, for its editing, cinematography, writing, direction, and even that rarely consequential subject hair and makeup all warrant notice.

Russell's previous two films not only fared well with critics and award shows, but also with the general moviegoing public. Hustle should continue that trend, its hot cast and riveting content deserving to make it an intelligent alternative to the season's usual offerings of effects-laden family entertainment despite direct competition from Scorsese himself when The Wolf of Wall Street opens on Christmas, a month later than planned.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by David O. Russell: Silver Linings Playbook • The Fighter
Argo • The Hoax • Zodiac • The Grifters • Ocean's Thirteen • Lovelace • The Iceman • The Ice Storm
Christian Bale: The Dark Knight Rises • The Prestige | Bradley Cooper: The Hangover • The Hangover Part III
Amy Adams: The Master • Julie & Julia • Trouble with the Curve • Man of Steel • The Muppets
Jennifer Lawrence: The Hunger Games • Winter's Bone • X-Men: First Class | Jeremy Renner: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
2013 Oscar Contenders: Saving Mr. Banks • The Wolf of Wall Street • Gravity • Captain Phillips • Nebraska • Frozen • Before Midnight
New on Blu-ray: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy • Nashville

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Reviewed December 20, 2013.

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