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American Hustle: Stylish, Well-Acted... and Surprisingly Empty

  • Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2013 12 Dec
  • COMMENTS
<i>American Hustle</i>: Stylish, Well-Acted... and Surprisingly Empty

DVD Release Date: March 18, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: December 13, 2013 (limited) December 20, 2013 (wide)
Rating: R (pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence)
Genre: Crime/Drama
Run Time: 138 min.
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Louis C.K.

Like many true stories adapted for the big screen, American Hustle plays it fast and loose with the actual facts. But in what Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises) describes as a largely improvisational effort, American Hustle ultimately highlights what director David O. Russell (last year's acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook) cares about the most: interesting characters.

In fact, when Bale was reportedly worried about how straying too far from script might compromise the plot, Russell informed Christian that he "hated plots." It was the people who mattered, he said. Trouble is, as stylish, well-acted and funny as American Hustle is, this particular cast of characters in this particular story doesn't always give the viewer much to root for.

While the narrative is inspired by Abscam, the late-1970s FBI sting that eventually led to the bribery convictions of several United States politicians, Russell seems far more interested in a different hustle altogether, namely how people are routinely in the business of conning each other.

In satisfying that objective, Russell and his all-star cast, including Amy Adams (Julie & Julia) and Silver Linings alums Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, are largely successful. In the film's hilarious opening sequence, we immediately get a sense of who Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is as he's meticulously tending to his elaborate comb-over.

Unlike the bulk of Bale's films where he's been required to lose a ton of weight and tone up to a superhero level of perfection, here he's sporting a good 40 extra pounds and a potbelly that makes for great comic relief. The master of stealing a quick 5k from people who are desperate for a bank loan, he and his mistress/fellow swindler Sydney (Adams) also keep the cash rolling in by dealing in phony art and running dry-cleaning businesses.

But as good as Irving and Sydney are at fooling the naïve, their luck is about to run out if overzealous FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) has anything to say about it. Sporting a head-full of dreadful permed curls that perfectly encapsulate his tightly wound personality, Richie spots a way to capitalize on the couple's reputation. It involves blackmail, naturally.

With Irving and Sydney now forced to help Richie take down shady elected officials, this is where Russell really starts having fun. With strict adherence to gaudy ‘'70s fashion (crushed velvet, teased hair, ugly suit patterns and all) and its accompanying soundtrack (everything from disco to Elton John to Wings), it’s a joy watching these well-known actors disappearing into such over-the-top characters.

Perhaps the best of the bunch is Irving’s slightly unhinged, wildcard of a wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence). Routinely dismissed as ditzy, Rosalyn is a spitfire with a serious beehive and the potential to ruin everything if Irving isn't careful. Like she did so well in her Oscar-winning performance in Silver Linings, Lawrence excels at playing the crazy scene-stealer. Whether she's blowing up a microwave, which at the time is a culinary novelty she nicknames "the science oven," or crassly confronting her husband's mistress, she surely makes her presence known.

That said, as great of a time as the cast is clearly having, there's still something about American Hustle that leaves the viewer emotionally cold. While easy to admire because of its technical precision and standout performances, this is a film that isn't easy to fall in love with because everyone involved is, well, deplorable. A feel-good story with a message, it's not.

If anything, Russell may have pulled off the biggest con of all by tricking the populace (currently 96% 'fresh' at RottenTomatoes) into loving a movie that's so pleasing in all the superficial ways but completely devoid of any actual substance. For that, American Hustle is a total success that flies in the face of all the serious movies (12 Years a Slave immediately springs to mind) earning major Awards buzz.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking, sometimes to excess. Cigarette smoking. In one scene, a character smokes a joint.
  • Language/Profanity: The full gamut of profanity is utilized throughout, mostly the f-word. God's name is also misused on occasion.
  • Sex/Nudity: Amy Adams's dresses are so low-cut they stop just short of completely showing her breasts. Irving and Sydney, a former exotic dancer, are having an affair (he's married with a young son), and we see them fooling around in a couple of scenes. There's no nudity, save for all the cleavage, but in one of the scenes we see/hear Sydney's obvious pleasure. Irving's wife Rosalyn gets back at her husband by having a "boyfriend" of her own (some kissing is shown between her and Pete). Rosalyn repeatedly refers to Irving's mistress as a "whore" and surprises Sydney with an angry kiss in a bathroom. Sydney also messes around with Richie (making out, groping, etc.), but despite his repeated attempts to seduce her, she refuses to sleep with him.
  • Violence: A man is threatened repeatedly and eventually beaten up pretty badly for not meeting another man's request for a hotel suite. Another man is hit in the face with a heavy object after not taking "no" for an answer. Several people are shot in one scene.

Publication date: December 18, 2013