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'American Hustle': When Brilliant Acting is More than Enough

by Caryn James
December 11, 2013 9:00 AM
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American Hustle

Bradley Cooper in pink hair curlers says it all. So does Christian Bale's  giant pot belly and glued-down combover, and Jennifer Lawrence's poufy blonde 'do. It makes sense that a film  about small-time cons reinventing themselves and a big FBI scam -- Abscam, in which the FBI hired a fake sheik to trap Congressmen on the take -- never quite lets you forget that you're watching bravura acting.

That works just fine for American Hustle, though, because the acting is deliriously funny. And David O. Russell's magically balanced film  teeters just enough over the top so the artifice becomes part of the joke, without ever letting the 70's cartoon colors become campy. If the word American in the title and Bales' voiceover pointedly talking about reinvention suggest a depth the film doesn't reach (let's face it, he's no Nick Carraway) the movie makes up for that with its sheer exuberance and its droll take on American morality. Who isn't on the take in this story, one way or another?

Set in 1978, the film begins with Bale's character carefully arranging that combover before entering a suite at the Plaza, and an FBI scam-gone-wrong. We learn most of the tangled story in flashback, with voiceovers from Adams and Cooper as well.

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a dry cleaner with a sideline scamming people desperately in debt, with the empty promise of a loan. That Bale makes this sleazeball likable is a real accomplishment. Irving begins an affair with Sydney Prosser (Adams) a former stripper from the Midwest who adopts a British accent and renames herself Lady Edith to join his adventure. 

In one of the film's many buoyant set pieces, Irving and Sydney stare deeply into each other's eyes as they stand in the center of a dry-cleaning carousel, clothes in plastic bags rotating around them in some oddball version of sweeping romance.  She also picks up a new wardrobe; from then on every dress plunges to her navel and could only possibly have been held in place by double-sided tape.

Irving and Lady E. are not particularly bothered by the idea of his wife back in the suburbs. But that wife may be the film's secret weapon.  As Rosalyn, mother of a young son Irving adopted, Lawrence gleefully runs away with every scene she's in. The hair, the red nails, the loud voice, could have made the character too simple or caricatured. But Lawrence shows us the insecurity and fear beneath Rosalyn's insistent bravado.  "She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate," Irving says. "She had me like nobody else."

When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) -- as lowly in the FBI as Irving is in the crime world -- uncovers Irving and Edith's scam,  he presses them to help him trap bigger crooks, not to mention politicians.  In the film's other scene-stealing role, Jeremy Renner, in powder-blue suits and a giant pompadour, plays Camden mayor and family man Carmine Polito, one of the targets who also becomes Irving's friend. Renner shows us just who Polito is: in the tradition of corrupt mayors across America, he lines his pockets while genuinely trying to improve his city. And Bale is at his best in his scenes with Renner, because Irving is so torn up by the battle between friendship and self-preservation. (Good as he is, Bale can't save his other film this season, Out of the Furnace.)

The scams twist and turn, yet the film glides along punctuated by those terrific set pieces. One is a  gaudy party where the FBI's Mexican fake sheik  rubs elbows with gangsters, and Rosalyn encounters Edith. In another -- not essential in any way but so fun it's show-stopping  -- Lawrence does housework while belting out Live and Let Die.

With its comic excess, American Hustle isn't trying for the naturalistic honesty Russell and his actors -- including Cooper, Lawrence and Robert De Niro -- brought to Silver Linings Playbook.  (Spoilery hint: watch for De Niro in a great, sly little role.) And in this year of so many spectacular films, some as perfectly realized as 12 Years a Slave and Nebraska, I can't see how it climbed to the top of some Best Films lists.  But it's one of the best, a truthful comedy about All-American deception. 

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  • Daniel Delago | December 12, 2013 7:29 AMReply

    You have to admire David O. Russell and his ability to write compelling screenplays in different genres. Not that many filmmakers can craft a story or write a lick of dialogue so that makes his body of work even more impressive.

  • lili | December 11, 2013 5:57 AMReply

    i dunno i just dont get the hype..? i was actually disappointed with the microwave scene but i guess i can still check it out.

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