Sunday, December 15, 2013

American Hustle is one fine piece of entertainment

David O. Russell is not the same director he used to be. Sure, he's brought elements of his style from his earlier four films into his last three (which include "The Fighter", "Silver Linings Playbook"), but they each have a more mainstream, crowd-pleasing quality to them. They're easier to swallow even if they still contain some elements of his trademark quirks. And look, there's nothing wrong with a good crowd-pleasing film. After all, that word isn't meant to be ironic. If it's pleasing crowds, it must be doing something right. Right?

Well, it doesn't always work like that, but Russell's films do. They are crowd-pleasing films in the best way, and even if they aren't all A-grade quality, they're still fun to watch. The one common thread that makes "The Fighter," "Silver Linings Playbook," and "American Hustle" fun to watch is the amount of attention paid to character. David O. Russell loves his characters, a lot. What sets "American Hustle" apart from the latter two films, and makes it A-grade quality, is how the worlds of each character seamlessly forms the plot. Whereas "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" still had a lingering stench of formula to them (as much as Russell wouldn't want to admit it), "American Hustle" leads you down so many dizzying paths and roads and has a great time doing it. It's always funny, it's always charming, and while on the surface it would seem that it lacks an emotional punch that would bring it all together, it does have some interesting things to say that will resonate with you. The film is based on the FBI ABSCAM scandal that took place in America during the late '70s, but it's much more focused on the characters. Russell mines a lot of humor out of this material, while leaving room for some truly dramatic and tense moments to take place.

The key to "American Hustle" being so successful starts with the acting. Like with most of Russell's films, this film is for people who love great acting. Earlier this week, I saw Christian Bale in "Out of the Furnace" and he could not have been more bland. But David O. Russell is able to get so many interesting elements out of Bale in "American Hustle," which makes him so incredibly watchable. The difference is night and day. The same can be said for Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, each of whom steal the show on a regular basis here. Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner help round out the cast. I liked the interesting line Russell kept having Cooper and Renner balance on. At first, you think Renner's character, Carmine Polito is only well-meaning on the surface, but you soon come to find that he really is who he says he is. Cooper's character, FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, also seems well-meaning on the surface, but soon reveals to be a bit of a con-artist himself.

Of course, he could never top the two masters of con-artistry: Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams). We get to learn a lot about these two when the film first opens. Rosenfeld owns a few dry cleaning stores as well as a loan business that regularly cons people out of money. He meets Sydney at a party where the two bond over their favorite Duke Ellington record. They instantly strike up a connection and soon Sydney winds up being an even craftier con-artist than Rosenfeld could ever imagine. He's in love.

But he's also married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). A stay-at-home wife who already had a kid when the two of them tied the knot. Irving willingly adopted him as if he was his own son and it's the son that keeps Irving from wanting to leave Rosalyn, despite there being no real love between the two of them. While Irving is out conning, Rosalyn's painting her nails, getting drunk, and setting things on fire. She's a bit of a loose cannon who insists on remaining married, despite how unhappy it makes the both of them. This continually drives a wedge between Sydney and Irving.

The wedge is driven even further when they find themselves on the verge of being sent to jail for their illegal practices. Richie DiMaso catches their loaning con in the act, and with the threat of a lengthy jail sentence lingering in their minds, they're both forced to work for the FBI using their conning skills against members of the New Jersey state government.

You know the statement "it took awhile for the film to get going"? That's usually said when the film's plot kicks in a little later than it should have. Well, the plot of "American Hustle" is deliberately put on hold so we can learn more about these characters. The movie is so well-written that when the plot finally starts to come into fruition, you hardly notice. David O. Russell writes these characters so beautifully, and they're each played by such gifted actors, that you would be willing to follow them wherever they go.

What's mind-boggling is that the actual plot to the film has a number of different complicated threads attached to it and yet everything comes together remarkably well. Even if there were some loose ends that weren't tied, because "American Hustle" is so character-based, it doesn't matter. There's still enough going on in this film, the plot is still continually moving forward, and it keeps you hooked throughout. There really isn't much more you can ask for in a movie.

I really enjoyed how this movie is essentially the anti-"Argo." Last year, there were three films that came out that cast the government in a pretty positive light: "Argo", "Lincoln", and "Zero Dark Thirty." I personally enjoyed each of those films, very much so. "Zero Dark Thirty" has a bit more ambiguity than the other two, but I realized with "American Hustle" that it's much more fun to watch a government agency get portrayed as a couple of sleazebags. They're not all terrible people, mind you, and the film places no emphasis whatsoever on depicting the FBI in a positive or negative light. They are who they are. Still, I liked that "American Hustle" was willing to get a little dirty. In exploring the different facets of corruption in government, "Hustle" actually tends to side with the corruptors. It shows how some of these people aren't willingly corrupt, a lot of them are just naive. Some of them are sad, lonely people. Some just want their share, they want a piece of the pie. "American Hustle" doesn't portray these individuals as great people either, it just portrays them as what they are. They're flawed individuals just like everyone else, they just happen to go a little too far.

In a way, everyone is a little bit corrupt. The world isn't fair. America isn't fair. Everyone has their chance to make it in this country, and a lot of people do it via illegal means. We see cases of this everywhere: in sports, in government, in business. Every day, we hear about this. The aim of "American Hustle" is to explore these kinds of people and see what really makes them tick. At the end, you come to respect Irving even with all of his faults. Not only is he amazingly crafty, but he does have a heart. It seems he got into conning people because he had an inherently cynical worldview, when it came to other people. But when he's introduced to Mayor Polito and sees just how genuine and good-natured he is, it melts his heart. He's finally met somebody he doesn't want to con, and in this occasion, he's being forced to by the government.

David O. Russell creates these characters who feel so much like real people (and well, they are based on real people) and he gives each character an honest moment of vulnerability. He presents them as one way at first, but then gradually reveals an emotional core that makes them seem human. It's an old trick, but it's a trick that never fails. And Russell knows that and exploits that for our entertainment. I wouldn't have it any other way.

"American Hustle" is an amazingly well-crafted piece of entertainment. Some will view it as a bit slight because it doesn't pound your head in with its ideas, but if a film does everything it sets out to do and it passes in every category, doesn't that make it a great movie? And it does have the necessary layers that makes it have more depth than what appears on the surface. It showcases the irony that a couple of con artists would be threatened by the FBI to con a mostly innocent, good-natured man which is much more dirty and seedy than anything they were doing in the past. The film is simultaneously both a celebration and an indictment of the sleazebag and it's a crowd-pleaser I have no problem getting behind. I can't wait to see it again.

Grade: A

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