Hustle over to "American Hustle"
Getting scammed and conned never felt so good. “American Hustle” is director David O. Russell’s take on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation during the late seventies. Led by the FBI, they used con-artists to set up politicians they thought were on the take. Not all the good guys were good nor were the bad guys all bad. But as written by Mr. Russell and Eric Warren Singer it is an enjoyable movie that will keep the surprises coming.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christine Bale) is a smalltime conman from Long Island dabbling in a few small scams. He meets Sydney Possner (Amy Adams). They fall in love. Sydney has worked hard all her life at becoming a success but when she finds out that most of Irving’s businesses are scams, she’s not only forgiving but joins the racket. They are so good as a team that they draw the attention of the FBI. They are busted by agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) but are given a chance at redemption if they agree to help the FBI set up some big fish in politics.
Mr. Russell and Mr. Singer have written a complex but wonderful screenplay. The movie begins with Irving’s story. Then it snowballs and begins to weave many webs, attaching itself to a lot of players. The characters are conventional in the beginning. We know who the scam artists are and who the authorities are. Irving is not a nice guy. Con guys usually aren’t but by the end of the film it seems he is the only one using reason and a conscience – in other words, likable. FBI agent DiMaso seems like the hero but when he makes too many busts his ego takes over and formulates assignments without thinking about the big picture. Sydney is in love with Irving but there seem to be some grey areas as to which one of them will get the immunity from the FBI and Sydney, who has always looked out for herself, has to do so again. Then of course there’s the wild card, Irving’s wife, Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence) a Long Island housewife with too much time on her hands. Her jealousy over Irving running around with a lot of big shots motivates her to be a part of whatever it is she thinks is going on.
The screenplay’s multiple layers are brought deliciously to life by a group of seasoned pros. They fit together seamlessly. Mr. Bale has played so many character types that its hard to remember what he actually looks like and that at one time he was even Batman. Irving is Jewish with a weight issue as well as imitation hair. Thinking of Mr. Bale in the role would require the imagination to be in overdrive. But he is so good he absorbs the character. Irving may not have been that good in real life but his reputation should be grateful that Mr. Bale has been cast. He gives Irving a bit of humanity and a lot of good sense. When the setups become too elaborate and the Feds aim their sights on some big politicians, it is Irving who tries to slow the proceedings down and offer some sense into their schemes.
His chemistry with Ms. Adams is fun to watch. This helps when they find themselves deeper in the Feds’ debt and no one is quite sure whether Sydney is going to betray Irving or not. Ms. Adams has played characters with a lot of spunk, most notably in “The Fighter,” but in “American Hustle” she adds a bit of suave as well as intelligence. She becomes a match for both Irving and the Feds. She hooks Agent DiMaso but, again, her motives are foggy.
Mr. Cooper is electric as hot-headed Agent DiMaso. He seems like a typical federal agent when he busts Irving and Sydney but when he discovers he can use them to catch some major players he becomes obsessed. Jeremy Renner plays the mayor of Camden, New Jersey and the Feds’ target. He is pitch perfect as that old school politician who does some dealing outside the law but does so for the benefit of his city and state.
Mr. Russell has made a string of great movies that have wonderful stories to tell (“The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook”) and “American Hustle” rises to the same level. There is one hang-up that diminishes a David O. Russell film and that is the inconsistency with direction. He does a great job of casting his films and gets the most from his actors but he lacks the ability to show what it is they are creating in front of him. There are major moments in “American Hustle” that lose their intensity, such as when Irving is unsure of whether Sydney will betray him. We watch their head shots as they confront each other. We should be watching these actors together in the same frame. They are at their peak and their body language plays a major role in setting the tone for a scene. A case in point is the seduction scene between Agent DiMaso and Sydney. Mr. Russell shoots the scene with both actors in the frame. The scene is intense because both actors are working off of each other – figuratively and literally – and we get to witness it instead of having their heads telling us about it.
“American Hustle” is a wonderful story with great performances that’s able to brush over technical flaws. Mr. Russell’s talents lay in telling great stories and he's added one here in “American Hustle.”