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Review: American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle (2013)

Directed by: David O. Russell

Premise: A conman (Christian Bale) and his partner (Amy Adams) cooperate with an overeager FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to ensnare politicians and mob bosses in a corruption sting. 

What Works: There is a lot to admire about American Hustle as a piece of filmmaking. This is a dense and complicated story but it proceeds in a way that is entirely understandable because of its cinematic qualities. The picture is extremely well shot and assembled, so that a lot of information that would ordinarily require exposition comes across in the subtleties of the scenes. One of the most impressive aspects of American Hustle is its production design. The story takes place in the late 1970s and the filmmakers capture the look and style of the time with a great deal of authenticity. The characters and sets have a lived-in look and that weathered quality defines the film.  American Hustle is a David O. Russell picture and Russell is a filmmaker who has recently hit a stride with movies like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. His work has consistently demonstrated a sardonic sense of humor; like Alexander Payne and the Coen Brothers, his characters are typically flawed and idiosyncratic but only recently has Russell grasped how to tell his stories in a way that is endearing instead of alienating. He’s primarily done that by creating characters who are very real and despite the many laughs that come at their expense, the characters’ desires are recognizable and empathetic enough for the audience to invest in the drama. The characters of American Hustle are thieves and liars but because of the careful handling of the story and the excellent performances, these people transcend their types and pop off the screen. American Hustle is led by Christian Bale and Amy Adams as lovers who cooperate on a fraud scheme. The film establishes Bale as a physically unattractive character but he is paradoxically vulnerable and confident at the same time and that tension makes him always watchable. Conversely, Amy Adams’ character is very attractive but she isn’t a bimbo and her craftiness and underestimated intelligence give her equal weight on screen. The film also stars Jeremy Renner as a New Jersey mayor and Renner’s character has a similar complexity. Renner’s character is ethically compromised but it is also apparent that he is trying to better the prospects of his city and his earnestness gives Renner’s character a stable ethical high ground in a movie where those platforms constantly shift. Another aspect of American Hustle that is really impressive is its story and filmmaker David O. Russell has outdone himself in this regard. Movies like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook featured memorable and unusual characters in stories that fit genre boiler plates. American Hustle is essentially a heist movie but the narrative structure is much more sophisticated and the picture deals with heavy themes like reinvention, integrity, and the corruption of the American dream.

What Doesn’t: American Hustle is fast paced and has a dense plot, meaning that this film requires attentiveness from the audience. Some viewers may find the story a little confusing in places but the filmmakers do an impressive job handling the narrative and the exposition. The one casting choice that isn’t quite right for the film is Jennifer Lawrence as the estranged wife of Christian Bale’s character. Lawrence does fine in the movie but unlike the other people in the film she does not have the same level of depth and brokenness. It may be that Lawrence is too well-kept for a role that requires sloppiness and the part might have been more interesting with an actress who wasn’t so likeable or as pretty. A less photogenic actress might have proven more appropriate for the role and been a more challenging choice for the audience.

Bottom Line: American Hustle is a very impressive piece of moviemaking, and it is perhaps David O. Russell’s best work. It has his characteristic wit and intelligence but it is also a complex and sensitive story that is as interesting as it is entertaining.

Episode: #471 (December 29, 2013)