“American Hustle” — a film review by Gary Chew
Brad Pitt gives the most succinct definition of what America just might be … speaking the last line in a picture released in 2012 that conveniently conveys the entire message of a pretty darned good movie just now in 2013 release. Pitt’s character rejoins a comment about the United States saying, “America isn’t a country, it’s a business.” Director David O. Russell uses that thought as his riff for a plenty good, star-studded, new movie called “American Hustle.”
How studded is it? Would you believe: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner … and if that isn’t enough … Jennifer Lawrence? Whoa.
Russell and Eric Singer wrote the script from a novel by Matthew Quick. As the title implies, “Hustle” moves with much the same speed and energy as Russell and Singer’s earlier movie hit, “Silver Linings Playbook” which starred Cooper and Lawrence.
There’s no “whoa” to “American Hustle,” but plenty of woe for the team of con artists depicted in it who astound you because they’re so terribly clever while seeming to have a rather dense concept of how to live a life — on which ever side of the law they happen to be.
We get to know these “Such A Deal” people in grand Russellian style: Bale as Irving, a dry cleaning business owner and loan shark with an adopted young son and a “Soprano-ish” wife named Rosalyn played by Lawrence … more know her as Katniss Everdeen; Bradley Cooper as Richie, who may be the best conning government cop you wouldn’t want to meet and Amy Adams as Sydney, a woman who’s as slick and sleek as any in the quartet. Sydney is Irving’s main squeeze even though he’s married to Rosalyn.
To make matters worse, after Richie busts Irving and Sydney in a low-level scam then leverages the pair to fink for him, Richie also develops big time hots for Sydney. It really does get complicated; most of all when Rosalyn and Sydney have their own kind of ladies “drawn down” while powdering their lovely noses at a party where everyone must be on their best behavior.
The first act of “American Hustle” exquisitely presents the main characters with musical support that will blow music lovers’ minds. The songs include Chicago doing “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” The auditorium speakers at the screening I attended also afforded very fine and mellow separate sound tracks of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald — not to mention smooth saloon singer, Jack Jones (on camera) crooning a standard that simply nails it. Other memorable and more recent recordings help to give the movie that certain je ne sais quoi.
As “Hustle” muscles forward though, its flair wanes; more serious circumstances evolve as the story dips into the actual FBI Abscam investigation of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Jeremy Renner’s Mayor Carmine spices up the narrative as Richie pressures his FBI boss as well as Irving and Sydney to set up the liberal Mayor of Camden in an infrastructure scam for large bucks needed to polish up the the Board Walk casino biz. Feigned Middle East oil money is the bait so, since the picture is set in New Jersey, how could there not be a Godfather waiting in the wings? No spoilers on that from me — no sir.
“American Hustle” isn’t really a political movie, although it tracks along to a lesser degree as a wannabe “Argo,” Oscar’s Best Picture last year. Russell maintains his creation more as a comedy; whereas “Argo” was a very serious film, but still an absolute knockout when the script called for funny time.
Russell’s “Hustle” merely brushes by D.C. involvement in Abscam and Mayor Carmine’s culpability is also a bit glossed over. It’s as if we need to come away with Renner’s character not being much of a crook after all.
Then there’s Bales’ Irving suddenly developing heart palpitations late in the movie that require him to take little pills. This stroke plays as a strategy to soup up sympathy for the film’s leading male role.
A side bar to stir the comic undercurrent for all the swell, swift dialogue relates to how hair is styled for the guys. Bales has the comb over to end them all; it’s hair curlers for Cooper to frizz up his pate and Renner looks like a 5 foot Elvis with his pompadour. And don’t be late to the cinema. You’ll miss the opening scene for Bale’s solo hair fixing segment. It should go down in a history book or two.
Fortunately, the principal female’s hair styles are less comedic. In fact, both Adams and Lawrence, as they say, just look “real good.” Adams’ generously revealing wardrobe is a sure winner.
Russell makes busy, high energy films and, if not weighty, still complex. But it seemed to me that the last third of his new one doesn’t hustle as much as it drifts from the pure entertainment I felt early on … so that loose ends, relationships and what might be called what’s most sincere about these flawed and zany characters — if “sincere” is the right word — are reasonably and palatably resolved.