American Hustle (2013)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014
Photo Credit: American Hustle / Vivendi
Immersed by Christian Bale and Amy Adams’ terrific performances, I doubt I would be as hypnotized with American Hustle if it weren’t for the first thirty minutes.

New Jersey dry clean business owner/swindler Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) was a son of a small-time businessman who used to get taken advantage of grew up knowing his chances were slim and had to find ways to survive. Sydney Prosser (Adams) was born in New Mexico and worked her way through Cosmopolitan magazine dreaming of another life for herself. Bold and ambitious their lives were going nowhere fast until they met at a pool party. His oversized beer-belly, toupee and rescinding hairline attracted her like none other because of the confidence he exuded. Though Irving is married to another woman (Jennifer Lawrence), they are drawn to each other sharing the same secret of reinvention.

During a flashback sequence where both characters describe the experience of falling in love, Irving offers Sydney to load up on clothes people had forgotten to pick up at one of his establishments. Standing in the center of a swirling ramp of abandoned faux leather jackets and sequined dresses, they recognize each others' masks of fantasies - two people who dreamed of becoming anyone else other than who they are. For spare moments during their deal-making, people pin their dreams and beliefs on them. He is prospective businessman capable of giving out sizable loans and she is a British aristocrat with the best contacts.

How the film begins to lose its strength is the difficulty of pinpointing how much the story loses its focus. During another routine meeting to embezzle a desperate man, an overambitious undercover FBI agent Richard "Richie" DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches them in the act. Even he has his own secrets. Quick to act and aggressive, Richie lives in his mother's apartment eating chicken in a private bathroom. He has a fiance he doesn't even acknowledge and declares to Prosser after she's arrested that he likes her. A deal is struck that Irving and Sydney will help Richie nab several Congress members for corrupt and illicit activities in exchange for their release.

Historically, ABSCAM took place in the 1970s. It was originally thought to be the driving force of the film. Through costume, soundtrack, and setting, yes the film lives up to aspiring similarities to the disco era. However, as many twisted truths, the characters try to hide themselves in, I couldn't help but see the cracks in director David O'Russell's work.

The plot grows too loose to understand where it's going. Irving's wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) is meant to be the wild card that drives the operation into a tizzy. As she gets mixed up in a heated battle with Sydney in a restroom, falls in love with a mobster, and argues with Irving, most of the scenes in the second half of the film simply feel like filler. Though there is an impressive cameo by Robert DeNiro, the story begins floating off into different directions of cons where you lose track of the original ABSCAM. Cooper, Adams, Bale, and a smaller supporting role by Jeremy Renner, keep the momentum of whether or not this heist will take place but the story felt like it was trying too hard to create enough lies so you don’t know what the truth is.

O'Russell makes his signature brand of dysfunctional characters and settings coming alive with an incredible soundtrack and cast. Though the film is a little over two hours long, and the soundtrack plus performances are enough to keep you awake, the ending feels like it swiftly and abruptly just ends. The lead up of the ultimate con and antagonist (which I thought there literally wasn’t one) felt like it came out of nowhere. Walking away from my viewing, it’s the last twenty minutes or so is where I deeply lost that hypnotic obsession I felt during the first half. The director suffers all too much from freely following his characters so deeply, the story suffers from disorganization.

Despite the disappointments, I was reminded as an audience member (and a book lover) how I personally "hustle" to escape into another person’s life. American Hustle served most compassionately towards Christian Bale, who brilliantly rebuilds himself into his characters. For Bale, who doesn't hide the lengths, he will go to serve a character gained fifty pounds in creating Irving, subsequently suffering affected posture. From the feet up you believe he is this wilted protagonist. As the movie pushes to include more emotional and financial cons from all characters major and supporting, it's his hopelessness and strife I kept rooting for.

During a brief visit to an art museum, Irving enlightens Richie on a Rembrandt painting he deems is fake. He states that it's the realistic quality of the painting is what brings millions of people to see this one piece of art. In that way, as Richie looks at the painting in a new way, every character bustles to hide and ultimately achieve something – mostly in common the American dream.

For one of the better ensemble casts in a 2013 film, Adams, Cooper, and Bale deliver on all ends. For a story, it's one where the characters and acting succeed far greater than the director's overall vision.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen American Hustle? What do you think?

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