American Hustle (2013)

Director: David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence

I personally hate it when movies claim to be “based on a true story.” Starting off with an outright lie is a bad first impression to make on your audience. Then along comes “American Hustle.” While the plot does take certain inspirations from actual historical events, never is the dreaded phrase used. Instead, it is substituted by “Some of these events actually happened.” Emphasis on the word “some.” It’s one of those “names were changed” type of movies. So what if that’s technically a different way of saying the same thing? By admitting that only some of what they’re showing you should be regarded as an adaptation of fact, the filmmakers are treating you with the honesty that the main characters in the story likely never would.

It’s 1978. By this time. the United States as a country had been through some serious shit. Suffering through the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Richard Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal, is it any wonder why some of the Baby Boomer generation turned to heavy drugs, disco and questionable fashion choices? The lead character and narrator, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a talented con artist with a flabby belly and a comb-over hiding a receding hairline which Irving should have given up on a long time ago. Joining him in the game of scamming the gullible is Sydney Prosser, who adopts an English accent when posing as Lady Edith Greensly. Having fallen in love with Sydney, Irving finds himself in a bit of a pickle, because he’s also married to the unstable and accident-prone Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a bond he’d rather not break in particular because of her son, whom Irving has also adopted. He’s also not fond of the idea of Rosalyn going to the police to report his criminal activities, of which she is well aware, should he ever leave her.

But Irving and Sydney face bigger problems once they attempt to scam the wrong guy, who reveals himself to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie has in mind a scam of his own, a sting operation designed to take down corrupt New Jersey politicians. With Irving and Sydney’s cooperation in this plot, they are promised their freedom. One of his intended targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the beloved mayor of Camden, N.J. Carmine almost walks out on their meeting when Richie tries to pressure him into accepting a briefcase full of money, all so he can get the moment recorded on a hidden FBI camera. Irving persuades Carmine not to walk away, softening the man up by confessing his very real disdain for the young, impulsive federal agent. This is a decision Irving will later come to regret after developing a friendship with the Mayor.

As the story progresses, the stakes get higher with Richie’s growing ambitions. A chance meeting with notorious mobster Victor Tellegio leads to Richie forming a strategy to take him down, as well. This draws ire from Irving, and from Richie’s FBI superior (Louis C.K.). Not to mention the fact that it puts everyone, even Rosalyn and her son, in mortal jeopardy. It’s a dangerous game that only the most devious among them can win.

Now, I’m an educated man, but even I can’t understand how an entertaining movie filled with a cast of immensely talented actors can be nominated for ten Oscars… including all four acting categories… and come away from Awards night with a big fat goose egg. But that’s the fate which befell “American Hustle.” C’est la vie. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Jennifer Lawrence in particular. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the fact that she is, for once, not the best thing about a movie she stars in. Instead, the standout performance of the film is delivered by Amy Adams. As Sydney, she often upstages Irving with her natural ability to scheme and plot. Sydney also stands out as the only character in the film with a keen fashion sense. Part of her game includes occasionally leading on the men she intends to dupe. Even as Richie is using her and Irving in his bid to achieve fame, Sydney in turn is playing on his growing infatuation with her.

For any movie to be truly memorable, you need to be able to point to certain scenes or key pieces of dialogue which stick with you long after it’s over. There are a few I could point to, such as the big reveal of the uncredited Robert De Niro as Victor Tellegio, or the moment when Sydney decides to reveal to Richie that she’s been faking the English accent the whole time. Richie’s reaction is priceless. But the part of the movie I think about most is when Carmine gives Irving a microwave oven as a token of friendship. He calls it the “science oven.” Comically, the gift doesn’t last very long. Despite being told not to, Rosalyn puts a tray wrapped in aluminum foil into the “science oven.” Oops. Sure, they can always get another one, but it wouldn’t mean as much to Irving as the one Carmine gave to him.

The movie is based in part on the FBI operation known as ABSCAM, which involved the investigation of some 31 political figures. Each of the main characters are based on participants in ABSCAM, with different names and other certain alterations for dramatic effect. Among the resulting convictions included six members of the House of Representatives and one U.S. Senator.

Director David O. Russell has really impressed the hell out of me so far. I like that he, as with most directors, has found a core group of actors he likes to work with and has stuck with them. Especially when it’s these people. The superhero fan in me can’t help but look at that movie poster and see (from left to right) Rocket Raccoon, Lois Lane, Batman, Mystique and Hawkeye. But the film enthusiast in me recognizes “American Hustle” as another work of art from the people who brought us “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”

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