Remember when David O Russell blew up on the set of I Heart Huckabees? When he was blacklisted from Hollywood? Yes? No? Who cares! That was the days of old and how thankful I am that he is back in the director’s chair for his third feature back from the Hollywood graveyard (if you visit don’t forget to see Mel Gibson), American Hustle.
American Hustle is Russell’s homage to the Scorsese’s films of old like Goodfellas. As with Goodfellas, American Hustle perfectly mixes a complex narrative, competing voice overs, and flawed characters to create a compelling, funny and intense film that sucks you into the lives of some of the most likeable, but despicable people you will ever meet. It is truly an exhibition of fantastic filmmaking.
What makes American Hustle’s characters and story even more amazing is that it is loosely based on the real life Abscam investigation of the 1970s. As was with the real case, the film focuses on how the FBI enlisted the help of two con people – in the film their names are Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) – to help bring down some corrupt politicians.
While the film takes some liberties in terms of plot and characters – the movie brilliantly acknowledges this in the film’s opening line: “Some of this actually happened” – American Hustle still stays true to the theme of the investigation: these are desperate people, hustling to survive. This theme transcends every character from Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) desperately trying to lift employment in his city through the funding and building of a casino, to Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a cop pushing to become a big shot detective by busting the most powerful politicians. Every character has clear motivations and feels fully realized.
To bring these characters to life, great acting was needed. American Hustle delivers this in spades. Almost every actor – with a notable exception to Jennifer Lawrence – seems natural in their role, becoming these characters and leaving their celebrity persona at the door.
I’m calling out Jennifer Lawrence (J-Law?) because she just seems too young for the role. While her acting is top-notch, I couldn’t shake the fact that Jennifer looks no older than late teens or early twenties, but has a young kid (6 to 8 years old) and is married. Think about it for a second, the film wants us to believe that Lawrence’s character had a kid when she was 12, 13, or 14. They want us to believe that she got pregnant while she was going through puberty. Doesn’t that seem unbelievable? No? Well, maybe it’s just me, but this is my review…..so HA!
Outside of Lawrence, everyone disappears in their role. Most notably, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who both give Oscar worthy performances. First, Bale once again makes a physical and emotional transformation to become Irving Rosenfield. He looks the part, dropping his muscular physique and cool hair style in favour of a pot belly and a hideous comb over.
Physical transformation is nothing new for Bale, as he completely transformed his body by losing significant amount of weight for his first collaboration with Russell, The Fighter. A transformation that helped him win a little gold man statue (also known as an Oscar), I might add. The physical transformation here is on the same level of his work on The Fighter. Take that anyway you like, but the right way to take it is that he deserves an Oscar.
Outside of his physical transformation, Bale embodies the persona of Irving. He is both a sleazy and confident New Yorker and an emotionally vulnerable puppy dog all at the same time. It is amazing how successful Bale is at demonstrating the various layers behind his three-dimensional character.
Bale isn’t the only stand out of the film. His partner in crime, Amy Adams, does something I would never associate with her: she’s sexy.
It is quite amazing how Adams sheds the nice, home girl feel she has been type-cast as and built her career around. Instead, she goes all in, giving us a peek into the world of Giselle from Enchanted if she had a run in with Girls Gone Wild. This is not to say Adams’ sexiness is overt, it is quiet subtle. Simple actions like gently waving her legs or tilting her head in a seductive manner are invigorating, inviting, and flirtatious without feeling overdone or fake. This point can’t be ignored because many celebrities who try to shed their nice girl persona fail because their intentions seem obvious and manufactured *cough* Miley Cyrus *cough*. In fact, I’m going to say something bold and state that this performance is a turning point for Adams, lifting her away from the type-cast celebrity she once was towards the versatile actor she hopefully becomes.
Now to say that Adams and Bale made this transformation on their own would be ignorant and I’m only ignorant when it comes to science, fitness (still kind of science), and Keeping up with the Kardashians. It is clear that David O. Russell’s great direction nurtured these performances and made them precise and nuanced. This is not surprising because all of Russell’s films include great acting.
Russell also seems to be very strong at pacing and entertaining my very, very, very, short attention span. This is a skill that often seems to be overlooked by independent writers and directors, whose films often drag. Luckily, that’s not the case here, as Eric Warren Singer and Russell have written a tight script that meshes perfectly with Russell’s kinetic shot composition (he loves that moving camera).
Speaking of shot composition (and terrible segues), the visual style of this film seems to be a little lacking. In particular, most scenes are lit naturally with few shadows or visual flair, making the shot composition not all that artistic or beautiful. However, this doesn’t seem problematic because Russell is going for a more realistic tone that you would usually find in a Scorsese film.
In fact, just like a Scorsese film, Russell’s American Hustle is all about Oscar worthy performances; natural directing; and an interesting and funny story. If that’s for you, American Hustle will not disappoint or hustle you out of your money.
I say it is worth a movie ticket.