When I saw the trailer for American Hustle, David O. Russell’s slick, new period piece about con artists in the late 1970s, my initial thought was that it looked like a Scorsese movie. I found it interesting because Russell, director of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, is an accomplished director with a unique style of his own. Much like the grifters in his latest film, Russell is in disguise here. It’s him, you just might not realize it at first glance. Unabashedly influenced by Scorsese, and to a lesser degree Tarantino, American Hustle is an enjoyable amalgam that draws inspiration from many sources, but stands on it’s own as a solid entry in the genre it pays homage to.
To pull it off, Russell rounds up the usual suspects. Christian Bale and Amy Adams each received Oscar nominations for their supporting roles in The Fighter (Bale won), and are reunited as con man Irving Rosenfeld and his sultry lover/partner in crime, Sydney Prosser. Bale often goes through rigorous transformations for his characters, and in American Hustle he packs on 40 extra pounds and rocks a wonderfully terrible comb over. Adams, scantily clad and brimming with confidence, had to learn two accents for her role; her character Sydney dons a fake British accent when working a mark.
Rosenfeld and Prosser run a smooth con until they’re caught by renegade FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Instead of sending them to jail, he uses them to go after bigger fish, including the crooked, but ultimately good-hearted Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Cooper reunites with Jennifer Lawrence, his Oscar winning costar from Silver Linings Playbook, and she radiates the screen as Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn, the unpredictable wildcard that could spoil the entire operation. The acting is superb and so is the writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if all 4 of the main actors are nominated for Oscars. Everybody’s talking about Jennifer Lawrence- and she’s great- but it’s Adams and Bale that impressed me the most.
“Some of this actually happened” reads the title card at the start of the movie. The plot is loosely based on the ABSCAM sting operation of the late 70’s and early 80’s, but Russell is less concerned with plot than he is with character. He doesn’t care about getting the facts right and the movie is better off for it. Things get messy, and it’s hard to tell who’s conning who; American Hustle is tough to pin down.
Everybody gets in on the fun. Louis CK plays Richie’s FBI boss and he tells a funny anecdote about ice fishing. Michael Peña is hilarious as a Mexcian-American Fed faking it as an Arab Shiek. There’s also a crowd-pleasing cameo that you may have already heard about, but is better left a surprise.
American Hustle embraces the style of the late 70’s, but everything is exaggerated. The sets are meticulously detailed and gorgeously lit. The cast sports over the top costumes and some of them look downright silly. It’s a testament to the acting that they don’t come off as caricatures or cliches. Russell’s characters don’t feel quite as authentic as those in Scorsese’s crime world, they’re more like Tarantino’s goons. They’re dressed up for comic effect, but the actors play it straight and own their characters, much like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. They look funny, but they don’t feel fake.
David O. Russell is an ace at finding humor in dark places, and American Hustle is a mine. It’s an entertaining movie and as I watched I couldn’t help but feel the influence of other movies I love, Goodfellas in particular. The voiceover narration, the music, and the cinematography all scream Scorsese. Many of the shots reminded me of Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. Russell’s handheld style is still present, but his camerawork is more kinetic than ever with lots of tracking shots and moving steadicam. The first half of the film is especially electric and well edited.
I love it when filmmakers reference other filmmakers and Russell pays homage to both Scorsese and Tarantino with obvious references to Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction. I won’t reveal them here, but keep your eyes peeled. He also uses Tarantino’s signature trunk shot.
Danny Elfman composed the score and does his thing, but it’s the soundtrack you remember after American Hustle. Jennifer Lawrence lights up Wings’ version of Live and Let Die. Other standouts are Jeep’s Blues by Duke Ellington, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Stream of Stars by Jeff Lynne. The list goes on…
American Hustle is now in limited release and hits theaters everywhere Friday. I look forward to seeing it again. It’s a lot of fun and it has the best ensemble of the year.
I rate this film 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls.
Essential Viewing: Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Boogie Nights, Donnie Brasco
Check out the trailer below:
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