Screened Out – American Hustle

By : Stephen Miller
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Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert DeNiro, Louis CK

A certain mythology has emerged along with the concepts of United States’  business savvy and ingenuity, that is the legend of the American swindle. Or Hustle, if you prefer. It’s this lawlessness that fascinates us about true stories like the Mizner brothers (whose dishonest land deals filled Florida and built Boca Raton). It’s the reason we love biopics like Catch Me if You Can, the movie about forger and scam artist Frank Abagnale.

American Hustle, set in the late 1970s, is about a whole cast of sneaky Americans. It’s like The Grifters meets a Martin Scorsese film. And if you can wade through the confusing, non-chronological beginning and a few slow spots in the middle, it’s a fun and funny examination of our sordid criminal underbelly.

Bale is a small-time scam artist with his fingers in several pots. Then he meets poor, struggling Amy Adams. The sparks immediately fly, both for new schemes and new romance. Adams starts pretending to be Bale’s British business partner, a royal, no less, helping set up bogus British loans. A careless slip-up gets them saddled with power-hungry, FBI agent Cooper. Cooper has a half-baked scheme to use Bale and Adams to catch illegal casino operators, politicians, and mobsters in a criminal plan to rebuild Atlantic City.

Crazy, sexy, dangerous Jennifer Lawrence steals the entire film.

Crazy, sexy, dangerous Jennifer Lawrence steals the entire film.

It’s not surprising that their love lives are also dishonest. Bale is married to psychotic ditz Jennifer Lawrence. Cooper is engaged but open to cheating.

These people are all cheats and liars. I was reminded of Liespotting author Pamela Meyer who said people can be tricked, because we’re all hungry for something. American Hustle is loaded with starving tricksters  hungry for legitimacy, love, and the mastery of their art.

This is all based on the real Atlantic City scandal of the ’70s, but only barely.

It’s unusual territory for director/writer David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, Three Kings, The Fighter). Even with solid acting and fantastic 1970s art direction, his lack of experience with this genre sometimes shows. He gets a little too tricky with the beginning, and he doesn’t always keep the pace tight, stopping for long, dull character monologues. One can sense since almost all of these actors are people Russell has worked with before that he loves them and their characters a little too much.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

It’s almost as if  like his characters. Russell is hungry, fooled into thinking his film needed these actor moments.

However, sometimes Russell gives us Jennifer Lawrence and her brilliant performance. She won her lead actress Oscar last year in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Her turn as Bale’s crazed, jilted wife in American Hustle is hilarious, scary, and electrifying. She will almost certainly get nominated again this time as supporting actress. She’s also likely to win, she’s that frightening, funny, and memorable. In fact, she steals the film from Bale, Cooper, Adams, and even DeNiro; her performance alone means you should go see this film.

Believe me, I wouldn’t try to pull one over on you.

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