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American Hustle (Russell, 2013)


We all do what we have to do to get by in life, even if it means pretending we’re someone we’re not to our closest friends and family, and sometimes ourselves. Even if the masquerade is bullshit, people will never stop trying to hide their true selves in order to get by or get ahead. This is the underlying message of American Hustle, a movie that was once more appropriately titled American Bullshit.  Set in the 1970s, American Hustle stars Christian Bale as a portly, balding con man named Irving, a man who makes a living from the art of bullshit and hustling. As a child, he drummed up new business for his father’s glass company by running through the neighborhood throwing rocks at windows. Nowadays, he continues in his father’s footsteps with an extra laundromat empire on the side. He meets a kindred spirit named Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party and the two experience mutual attraction in its most intense form. Sydney will do anything to leave behind the life she once led as a stripper, conning her way to a good position at Cosmopolitan magazine while still looking for an excuse to reinvent herself. Irving presents Sydney with a new business endeavor involving the art of promising bank loans to desperate people, taking their down payments and giving them nothing in return. Sydney invents a new persona, Lady Edith of London, and a new business begins to blossom.

It is admittedly exciting to watch Irving and Sydney’s scheme go off without a hitch, mostly due to Bale and Adams’ strange but palpable chemistry. Their endeavor is soon halted when an FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches on and convinces them to work with him. Richie is a primal creature whose ambition lies in taking down corrupt politicians, even if it means bending the rules of the law himself. Richie convinces Irving and Sydney to help him take down four other con artists with the promise that he won’t turn them either of them in. Cooper brings an extreme amount of energy to the role, often blurring the lines between quick-thinking detective and certifiably insane person. Richie takes a liking to Sydney, or at least the Lady Edith version of Sydney, who uses his emotions to her own advantage, until she begins to develop genuine feelings for him. Complicating matters even more is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who can’t help but stick her nose in Irving’s business despite the dangers of her doing so.


For all of the qualities of the film’s story and direction, American Hustle truly shines because of its incredible ensemble. Director David O. Russell is well known for his ability to let actors shine and here he has combined many of the actors from his two previous films, Silver Linings Playbook (Cooper and Lawrence) and The Fighter (Adams and Bale). The actors often play off each other like they’re in a classic screwball comedy, allowing the dialogue by Russell and fellow screenwriter Eric Warren Singer to pop off the screen with charisma and energy. Not every character is a wild caricature, though. While Cooper and Lawrence play very broadly with their over-the-top characters, Bale and Adams are quite subtle with their affectations. It’s the smart way to go, as Irving and Sydney live their lives behind masks, never allowing anyone else in but each other.

Amy Adams & Christian Bale in American Hustle
Russell knows what he’s doing when it comes to making an entertaining film. His specialty, as of his last three films, has become characters talking over each other, giving his films a more realistic feel than many of his contemporaries. While his films tend to rule in this chaos, American Hustle makes good use of visual and aural synergy. Each of the characters is carefully and impeccably dressed, including the men (which is a rare feat, not only in movies but in any situation). Costume designer Michael Wilkinson gives each character a signature, memorable look, with each article of clothing suiting both the actor and the character. Russell also utilizes some of the most iconic tracks from the ‘70s to transport the audience back into a world of campy disco and epic rock ‘n’ roll. Russell creates some of the most memorable scenes of the year just through his use of visual composition, perfectly-timed music and the actors’ performances. To name a few, Richie and Sydney’s late night visit to a discotheque scored to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Rosalyn’s furious dancing to Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and the truly epic scene featuring each of the main characters entering a party set to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” are pure cinematic heaven. From a visual standpoint, American Hustle ranks as one of the most meticulously-rendered films of 2013.

Under all of the pomp and circumstance, however, is a genuine exploration of identity in an uncertain era. The ‘70s was a period of great paranoia for Americans, having just been betrayed by President Richard Nixon through the Watergate scandal in addition to reeling from the loss of innocence in the form of JFK’s assassination. American Hustle explores the extreme measures many choose to resort to to try and lead the life they want in a time where no one could be trusted. Even though the paranoia is a constant, nagging feeling for many of the characters in the film, there is still that underlying hope of finding someone worth trusting. Sydney falls madly in love with Irving, marveling at the fact that she’s finally found a true equal, but she quickly becomes disappointed by his marital situation. Richie ignores his fiancé in favor of Sydney, hoping that they can one day be together, even while she pines for another. Rosalyn is a lonely housewife who desires to give her life some meaning, hoping to find anyone to impress. And then there’s Irving, who desperately hopes to one day be able to live an honest life, despite his tendencies otherwise. As the tagline notes, “we all hustle to survive,” even if it means sacrificing our true identities to feel safe and secure.

Grade: A
MVP: Amy Adams

Awards Potential:

Best Picture
Best Director: David O. Russell
Best Actor: Christian Bale
Best Actress: Amy Adams
Best Supporting Actor: Bradley Cooper
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence
Best Original Screenplay
Best Production Design
Best Editing
Best Sound Mixing

Photo: Annapurna Pictures


One comment on “American Hustle (Russell, 2013)

  1. Nice review Kevin. Felt to me like it was a movie directed by Scorsese, but a very good one at that.

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