This is, of course, a movie rated R. For those of you old enough to see it, or with parents and guardians who’d take you, or just really lazy ticket takers, know that there are spoilers ahead.
“American Hustle” was, IMO, flat out fantastic. While it wasn’t a perfect movie, my quibbles are few, and it’s as consistently entertaining, suspenseful and thought-provoking as any film I’ve seen all year. It fictionalizes the true-life 1970s FBI sting Abscam, in which FBI agents hired a con man to help them entrap first money-laundering agents, then members of the government willing to take bribes. We meet Christian Bale’s Irving, a talented con man who’s ready to break out of the small time; Amy Adams’ Sydney, a girl clawing her way into New York who realizes Irving is the key to her future, and her heart; Bradley Cooper’s Richie, an FBI agent who wants the right things for all the wrong reasons; Jeremy Renner’s Carmine, the mayor of Camden, NJ, who wants the wrong things for all the right reasons; and Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn, whose rocky marriage to Irving is based partly on his philandering and deceitfulness, and partly on the fact that Rosalyn is a live wire sending off sparks in every direction — sometimes shedding light, sometimes starting fires. Before the cons are done, every single one of these people will betray or have been betrayed — usually both.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:
1) Amy Adams’ accent work – generally strong – wobbled on a couple of occasions. She nails the English accent as Lady Edith (or, at least, comes as close as she needs to for the people she’s trying to scam), but even though her character Sydney is supposed to be from New Mexico, occasionally a few hints of Brooklynese would creep in. This wasn’t a major problem; the fact that I’m naming this first should let you know how good I think the whole is.
2) Ultimately, I found the conclusion less than totally satisfying. IMO, it gave Irving a moral authority he had not earned. It’s like David O. Russell really wanted to create a hero out of this mess, but there are no heroes here. Everyone’s trying to survive and succeed any way they can, and it would have been enough just to keep watching that play out. That said, I don’t think the ending went anywhere unbelievable.
3) Yes, okay, 1970s hair was often bad. The blow dryer was a new invention, and people went a little nuts with it at first. But — like many period films set in the past 50 years — “American Hustle” overemphasizes the absolutely most egregiously awful hairstyles of the era, at the price of realism. The women’s hair was reasonably well done, though completely devoid of two styles that should have been on the heads of about 50% of the women in 1978: the layered, feathered Farrah and the Dorothy Hamill bob. There is almost no way to exaggerate how many women wore one of those hairstyles; I’m sure several women wore both in their turn. Still, I thought the women’s hair mostly looked okay. But the men’s hairstyles were, almost universally, designed to be laughed at, and were over the top even for the ’70s. Do you realize how big you have to go to be over the top for the 1970s? They went there. In the cases of Richie and Irving, their hairstyles were specifically tied to their characterizations, so I bought it. But at several points, minor male characters or even extras would show up with this ludicrous hair that took me out of the scene.
WHAT I DID LIKE:
1) The acting is brilliant across the board. Everyone down to the most minor bit players absolutely nails it. While Christian Bale again vanishes into his character like a chameleon, and Bradley Cooper does a fine job of slowly revealing the nastily aggressive side of his would-be white knight character, the women ran away with it. Amy Adams’ work here is astonishing. Sydney loves Irving, but knows he can and does fail her; the anger and the yearning coexist in every line she speaks. She becomes vulnerable to Richie, both through sexual attraction and the sense that he might represent another way out — but she holds back despite herself, even when she trusts and wants him most. Watching her on that brink, trying to live out the scam and figure out who she can love and who she can trust, while all the time saving her own skin first … it’s amazing. Sometimes just one shot of her face, without a single line of dialogue, communicates so many complicated emotions that it’s like you just read a book about her in this one moment.
And Jennifer Lawrence! At first, I thought, “She’s fun in this, but why is there all this Oscar talk?” Then comes a moment about 2/3 of the way through the film where Rosalyn suddenly rises up and snatches the movie away from all three other characters – to the point where I was almost startled when the plot went back to focusing on them again. Rosalyn knows her husband’s been cheating on her, and she knows it’s with Sydney, and she also knows Irving’s in some scam deep. Although mostly we’ve been shown Rosalyn as loose cannon, putting metal in the microwave because “nobody tells me what to do” (and starting a fire), suddenly we realize how much insight she really has, and how much both Irving and Sydney have underestimated her. She’s brilliantly funny, venomously angry and painfully vulnerable – sometimes all within the same scene. During the “Power of Intention” scene, I could’ve sworn J.Law was channelling Barbara Stanwyck. There is no higher praise.
2) Sometimes scam/con game movies are so obvious that you have contempt for the characters who could ever fall for such a scheme. Other times, they’re so tricky, layered and devious that you can’t believe any human being would actually go to the trouble of thinking this up, much less acting it out. In the latter case, the movies operate less as a con game on the patsy character as a con game on the audience, trying to earn undeserved credit for cleverness. (I’m looking at you, “Trance.” How dare you waste James McAvoy like that?)
“American Hustle,” however, nails it. The scams Sydney and Irving run are fairly simple, really; it’s the simplicity that makes them believable and effective. The games don’t get more complicated as the plot progresses, only more subtle. I was completely surprised by a couple of twists in the story, but the twists made complete sense based on what we’d already seen, and what we knew the characters could do. The one major curveball is thrown by Rosalyn, but there, too, she’s behaving just the way we should expect.
3) Big points for the music in this movie. The majority of the soundtrack is made up of major 1970s hits – most of which we’ve seen in period stories before – but somehow the ways they’re used make them seem fresh and new. They’re always perfect for the scene, whether it’s Elton John’s wistful “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Tom Jones’ brassy “Hey, Delilah,” or — in a wonderful scene for Jennifer Lawrence — Paul McCartney’s Bond theme, “Live and Let Die.” Sometimes with period movies you feel like songs are being dragged out for you to laugh at, or as something “typical.” Here, every song has been chosen to truly fit the scene; the music is treated with respect, as is the audience.
4) The tone of this movie is so subtle and complicated that I can’t believe DOR got it so right. “American Hustle” plays as both comedy and drama, and even as romance, without shortchanging any of those elements. When Richie and Sydney go to the disco, we laugh a little at her crazy hair and the multicolored lights – but we also see that it’s damned sexy, and a sign that each of them are getting lost in roles assigned to them in the scam. When Irving’s trying to scam Carmine, it’s simultaneously a parody of 1970s Jersey tackiness and Irving’s slow realization that – for once – he’s conning a genuinely decent man. When Rosalyn dances around her kitchen while she’s cleaning house, it’s a huge comic moment for J.Law – and one where we realize she could be dangerous in her own way. Virtually every scene works on a number of levels, which is rare.
In short – I thought this was terrific. It’s too rare to see something that’s both so confidently subtle and mature and consistently hilarious. I hope DOR makes lots more movies with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.