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American Hustle – Movie Review

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American Hustle – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

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When tackling a real-life event in a motion picture, elements are absolutely going to be changed for narrative purposes. Those watching a feature film, hoping for a history lesson would be best left watching a documentary on the subject. With a clever disclaimer at the start, David O. Russell lets the audience know upfront that American Hustle is not a 100% accurate telling of the FBI’s Abscam operation in the late 1970s. Names are changed and the characters we witness are definitely caricatures, because the story is too ridiculous that maybe telling a completely true account will seem unbelievable. These motivations work in the film’s favour as this is a smart and funny screenplay with some of the best performances you’ll see in a movie this year.

Watching American Hustle, it’s difficult not to think of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, especially when the narration pipes in and details the life of con artist Irving Rosenfeld and his associates. However, there is nothing wrong with aping another director’s style if the filmmaker can bring his own stamp to the work and still make a strong film. Russell succeeds there, because him and his co-writer Eric Singer take the right approaches in establishing their characters and this wacky operation. When the protagonists in a movie are criminals, they are occasionally made to be likeable even if their actions are hardly worth admiring. However, American Hustle takes the interesting step of making the con artists the heroes of the story and the FBI agents are the unhinged psychopaths.

Irving is made to be very sympathetic and worth rooting for, because he is fully aware of his actions and how they affect other people. Even when arguing with his ditzy wife, every action he takes is to help his son. He is a criminal who the viewer is actually rooting to succeed and in yet another interesting twist, the FBI agent leading Abscam is the most unlikeable character in the film. Stuck in the middle is Irving’s mistress, a flawed individual who is also made sympathetic and the reluctant mayor whose reasons for taking bribes are hardly malicious. This flipping of the script is part of the greatness found in American Hustle and adds to the darkly comic tone prevalent throughout.

The Goodfellas comparison can also be made with the clever editing of American Hustle, which certainly brings to mind Thelma Schoonmaker’s cutting on the Scorsese picture. Again, that’s hardly a detriment of the film, which cleverly jumps in time with the story still holding plenty of coherence. Russell’s trio of editors choose the right moment to cut to one of the many subplots running through the film, without becoming jarring. The film even begins smack-dab in the middle of the action with a funny exchange between the characters that immediately sets the tone. Like Scorsese, Russell also employs an eclectic soundtrack full of inspired song choices and fitting with the characters and the 1970s time period. Michael Wilkinson deserves plenty of credit for fitting this band of scoundrels with the appropriate clothing and the hair department follows suit. While it may seem over-the-top to some, the look of the picture certainly evokes the decade, even down to the cute way the opening studio logos are presented.

Every actor in American Hustle is at the top of their game, continuing to showcase themselves as some of the best working professionals with an impressive ability at reaching into characters far away from their usual personas. Christian Bale seems to transform himself in every role he takes to the point of worrying about the potential health risks. His Irving Rosenfeld is immediately attention-grabbing with his carefully combed haircut and portly belly, but Bale does not let his weight gain and bald head do the acting for him. He is electrifying on-screen with every emotion being believable and it’s not difficult to see why people fall for his acts. Amy Adams is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood today, consistently delivering top-notch work. Her role as Sydney is no different, delving deeply into this smart, but emotionally high-strung individual. The fact that the put-on British accent of Sydney’s fake persona is not wholly accurate only adds to the character as her charm under that guise is completely switched on. Meanwhile, Bradley Cooper is on fire for all of his screen time as he makes no secret about his boisterous attitude and unlike the heroes of this story, we are laughing at him.

Jennifer Lawrence makes the most of her supporting character, creating a daft airhead who never gets on our nerves even when she starts to test Irving. Some of the biggest laughs in American Hustle come from her genuine ignorance at Irving’s whole operation and the most simplistic of household appliances. Despite being famous all over the world as Katniss Everdeen, with her second appearance in a David O Russell film, she has again managed to make us forget about her other work when she appears. Jeremy Renner manages to bring compassion to Mayor Carmine Polito and Russell plays with our conception of politicians to again make us look at this world differently. You never get the sense of him getting involved in these bribes for malicious gain, but rather out of legitimate love for the citizens who vote for him. The most surprising cast member is Louis CK, who has maybe ten minutes of screen time and makes every scene of his memorable. The chemistry between CK and Cooper provides a fantastic minor plot point and the stand-up comedian even slightly tops his co-star in the acting department. With his roles in both American Hustle and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine this year, he is proving to be a very welcome on-screen presence.

Those familiar with Martin Scorsese’s filmography will certainly spot similarities in tone and style with American Hustle. However, this is a case where David O Russell is using his obvious influence to his advantage and creating a striking, funny and exceptionally well-acted satire on an event too ridiculous to believe. Russell has always brought a sense of humour to serious topics, though, whether it’s the Gulf War in Three Kings or bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook. Here is a filmmaker who has this impressive ability at seeing the comedy in those not-so-light areas of discussion. However, American Hustle is a case where the humour of the situation is already there for him to exploit and have a lot of fun with.

Review By: Stefan Ellison

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