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With seven Golden Globe nominations, including best comedy, David O. Russell’s American Hustle is already a top contender for several accolades during this year’s award season. Hot on the heels of last year’s well-received Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell has crafted a critical darling that might have casual audiences scratching their heads. Why? Mindset. Based solely on the trailers, one might expect American Hustle to be a high-stakes caper. Alternatively, the fact that this film is (loosely) based on the real-life events of the FBI’s Abscam scandal might raise expectations of heavy dramatic tension. Don’t get me wrong; American Hustle is a fiasco that understands the underlying emotions behind its characters. But, at its core, American Hustle is a comedy, perhaps one of the funniest comedies of 2013, and the viewing experience is enhanced when approached from this mindset.
The film begins with the clever disclaimer ‘Some of this actually happened,’ which serves to establish a light-hearted, comedic tone. More so, it is a tongue-in-cheek, pre-emptive strike against stodgy critics who might try to tackle the great liberties the script takes with facts. American Hustles wants you to know that fact-checking is not welcome here, that entertainment value trumps any historical accuracy. Perhaps disarming a modern audience base that is quick to determine fault based on details is one of this film’s greatest hustles.
Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, American Hustle follows con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his accomplice/lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are recruited by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help in a sting operation designed to target corrupt public officials in New Jersey. As the operation escalates, so too do the stakes, and Irving soon finds himself in a collapsing house of cards filled with Florida mobsters, con-artists, the FBI, and his unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
David O. Russell knows how to write hilarious characters, and more so, he’s proven to be a powerful visionary when it comes to eliciting strong performances from his casts. Sure, his techniques have been considered unorthodox or even unethical by some, highlighted primarily by the well-publicized fights he engaged in with Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees. With American Hustle, Russell is gifted an all-star cast, but the quality of their performances showcases his talents as a director.
Christian Bale is in top-form as the too-slick-for-his-own-good Irving, portraying both guile and a degree of charm that we haven’t seen from Bale since he donned his brooding affectations for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The ever-enchanting Amy Adams plays an alluring con woman who uses her looks and a fake British accent to get her way, but Adams is at her best when she allows the imperfections and cracks to show through the surface of her character. Bradley Cooper lets exuberance and over-confidence envelop his role as FBI Agent DiMaso, helping to add another layer of complexity to the hole Irving finds himself in. Other welcome additions to the cast include Louis C.K. and Robert Deniro, both of whom are scene-stealers during their relatively light amount of screen time. One minor quibble, though: although there is nothing wrong with his performance, Jeremy Renner feels a bit underwhelming as Mayor Carmine Polito when compared to the rest of the cast.
Despite playing a role that serves mostly as another obstacle for Irving to overcome, Jennifer Lawrence nails her portrayal of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, turning in the most exceptional performance of an already exceptional cast. Lawrence is very comfortable playing to the comedic beats that occur when she is burning the family dinner, finds manic energy as she sings the classic Wings song ‘Live and Let Die’ to her husband Irving, and reveals how broken a woman she is during a tender moment in the arms of another man. An unpredictable force of nature, Rosalyn possesses the most layers of any character in American Hustle, and Jennifer Lawrence pulls them all off without a hitch.
Of course, one of the staples of a good period piece is a killer soundtrack, and American Hustle certainly delivers in this area. From the heavy use of ELO’s ‘10538 Overture’ in the film’s marketing campaigns, to Bale and Renner’s drunken duet of Tom Jones’s ‘Delilah,’ to the aforementioned ‘Live and Let Die,’ American Hustle makes excellent use of a generation of stellar music. The big, smoky jazz number ‘Jeep’s Blues’ by Duke Ellington appears three times throughout the film, becoming a welcome, if unofficial, theme song. Also of note is the both original and familiar cover of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ as recorded by Lebanese musician Mayssa Karaa, which adds another level of creativity by reinventing a song that is often viewed as clichéd for this type of period film.
Frenetic energy is at the core of American Hustle, and it is fair to say that this approach may not sit well with all audiences. Eric Singer and David O. Russell’s script eschews traditionally considered ‘best practices’ for narrative structure, often chasing rabbits down bizarre side trails that don’t always go anywhere. Some of the supporting characters feel superfluous, and despite the stakes Bale’ Irving faces as the plot develops, there is never a sense of inherent danger or menace. Criticism duly noted, but ultimately inconsequential, as the humor and odd detours are a large part of the charm of American Hustle. Approached with the right mindset, American Hustle is a gem of a movie, one deserving of all of the praise it will receive in the upcoming months.