Tuesday, December 24, 2013

American Hustle (2013) – Review

Review: American Hustle is a delightfully entertaining, extremely well acted con man film. It is about two con artists, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who are blackmailed by an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, into helping him conduct sting operations. However, DiMaso’s scope begins to spin out of control as the con gets bigger and bigger with the team now going after members of the U.S. government and the mob. Rosenfeld sees that everything is getting out of hand and needs to figure out a way to get over on everyone and survive what has become a dangerous game.

Con man films often conform to a very specific kind of narrative, one that involves deception and plot twists – usually trumping character development. American Hustle is no different in terms of its basic plot construction, as it is often difficult to tell what is real and what is for show and the film works in a very good plot twist. But unlike most con man films, its narrative does not revolve around the con. Writer-director David O. Russell has fictionalized the true events of the ABSCAM FBI operation (a real case) to create what is much more a character centric narrative. The con is then ultimately just what brings these characters together, while the character flourish and the narrative even begins to feel a bit like a romantic comedy.

The conventions of the con man genre are not entirely sidestepped however. Like all the best cons, everyone gets what they want – well except the mark. What works particularly well about American Hustle is that the audience gets what they want too, which gives the film a very satisfying feel. The audience is treated to a narrative that makes them laugh, characters that explode off the screen, and a story that engages them.

The film succeeds on the great characters that Russell has created, with the help of his fabulous cast. They are rambunctious, infectious, and overblown – yet the majesty of the film is that the actors and Russell still ground them in reality, even though they are played so big. Each has their character moments that pull the audience in (especially Rosenfeld and Prosser who feel the most relatable) and each is very entertaining.

While the film does emotionally resonate, Russell plays it much more for laughs than deep drama – playing into the film being chiefly a piece of entertainment (as it is a con man narrative after all). The film is fantastically funny. It has such an alluring and jovial energy that is it hard not to be enchanted by its charms. It is just a lot of fun to watch, but it also feels a bit unsubstantial. The characters do their dance but its does not really mean anything (due to the lack of a deeper resonance), and yet still the audience is highly entertained.

American Hustle is a showcase of talented actors teaming up with talented filmmakers, providing characters that erupt with jubilant commanding energy and a narrative that beguiles as it captivates. The film is simply a work of cinematic gratification.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David O. Russell has really become one of American Cinema’s most successful current filmmakers, winning Oscars for his actors in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook – American Hustle is sure to garner a few nominations as well (and maybe a win). Russell does everything well. He is a good visual storyteller, gets great performances (while demanding the attention of some of todays most talented actors), and has snappy, effective dialog. I look forward to his next feature.

Danny Elfman delivers a fun score that is very fitting for the narrative’s tone and time period, however it is completely overshadowed by the fantastic soundtrack. Russell places found music brilliantly throughout the film, heightening the mood and his visuals. And to that, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s collaboration with Russell is also very good. The lighting is just right, and the camera is aggressive in its movements screaming out to the audience, honing and pointing their attention. Accompanying the lighting is Judy Becker’s standout production design, wonderfully creating the late 1970s/early 1980s with a nostalgic flare. The same can be said for Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs, which in a way steals the show.

As a character driven film, the performances in American Hustle take center stage. Robert De Niro is good in a very small role (channeling a bit of his The Untouchables magic: the ability to make an impact without much screen time). Jack Huston is also good in a small supporting role. Louis C.K. pretty much just shows up to play himself, but it works really well in the context of the character and narrative. He also provides some good laughs (of course). Jeremy Renner gives one of his best performances to date in support (it is up there with his work in The Hurt Locker and The Town). He plays Carmine Polito very sympathetically (which was key to the narrative arc working for Rosenfeld). Jennifer Lawrence is powerfully charismatic as Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn, grabbing up all the attention in her scenes. She very well could see yet another Oscar nomination and win for her work. She is so good at playing on the edge – wildly alluring, yet kind of scary. Bradley Cooper was excellent in Silver Linings Playbook, opening eyes to his talent. In American Hustle he is even better as Richie DiMaso, a power hungry, coked-out FBI agent. He thinks he is the smartest guy in the room, even when he is being left behind. Amy Adams is also fantastic in the film as Rosenfeld’s partner in crime Sydney Prosser. Her performance is quieter than her co-stars, but her wardrobe choices are bombastic. In this way, she too pulls attention. Christian Bale just disappears into his characters, and Irving Rosenfeld is no different. Bales transforms himself into a man that is always thinking of the next move, and yet is relatable due to his compassion. Bale goes big and flashy with his look, but the performance is grounded in honest dramatic emotion – which is really true for the film as a whole.

Summary & score: American Hustle is immensely entertaining and features many of 2013’s best performances – all that, while still operating as a fun con man narrative. 8/10

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