David Evans, Regal Radio
There may not be a hotter director in Hollywood right now than David O. Russell. The director of previous critical and commercial hits such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook has just scored again with American Hustle, which released nationwide today.
With a title that reads like a BET miniseries, Hustle actually features a cast built off Russell’s previous two successes, including 2011 Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christian Bale (The Fighter) and 2013 Best Actress Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings). Both Bale and Lawrence steal their fare share of scenes in this one, playing a husband and wife doomed for failure for no less a reason than they’re both steadily lying to each other.
Lies and re-fabrications and reinventions and plots to get over line this movie out like a questionable Gucci print across the bag of one of this movies status-climbing female leads, but damn it if this movie doesn’t make you appreciate its boldness and constant ability to remold and redefine itself by the end credits.
Last week I attended an early showing of this film at the Music Box Theatre, the independent film landmark on the North Side of Chicago that is currently celebrating its’ 30th anniversary (shouts out to Buck LePard and Dave Jennings of the Music Box for their continued hospitality). A packed house filled the Music Box’s main screening hall to see one of the most anticipated films of the award season, which was being shown as part of the New York Film Critics’ Series. That same week the NY Film Critics Circle awarded Hustle with its best picture and best screenplay awards.
Based on, but not limited in its storytelling, by the FBI’s ABSCAM operation, the film goes over the events in which the FBI set up several United States congressmen to take bribes in a scam to rebuild Atlantic City during the late 1970’s and early ’80’s but it uses that story structure to showcase several superlative performances from its main cast.
In the film, the ABSCAM operation is headed by Richie DiMaso, an ambitious and brash young agent (played masterfully and maniacally by Bradley Cooper of Silver Linings) who uses con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Edith Greenlee (a.k.a. Sydney Prosser) (Amy Adams, previously of The Fighter) for his ambitious plans after catching them in a money lending scam. DiMaso co-opts the pair into being players in the ABSCAM operation and starts a painful strain in Rosenfeld and Greenlee’s bond as scam partners and lovers, which they do for a time without Lawrence’s character knowing. Notice I say “for a time,” cause this movie isn’t interested in making things less complicated as it goes along.
Anyway, under DiMaso’s control, Rosenfeld and Greenlee take part in initial scams which leads them to a big-time and career-changing (for DiMaso) get in popular Camden, NJ mayor Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner). Using a comically convincing Arab Sheik named Abdullah and played by a Mexican-American (played by Chicago native Michael Pena) our team of hustlers get next to the mayor and learn of his certain dangerous financial backers he has, namely members of the Florida mob who are headed by Victor Tellegio, played in an effective cameo by another Russell repertory player and American movie legend who I’ll leave you to see at the show.
American Hustle bustles with all the familiar elements of a period film that takes place in the ’70’s — the hair and bell bottoms and familiar music cues could give an air of re-tread, but here everything is used with such specificity that you feel that every detail has been worked over multiple times via Russell, his actors and the film’s crew, leading everything to be that more effective in pushing the story forward and deepening your connections to its characters.
Susan Jacobs, music supervisor of Hustle, who also worked with Russell on Silver Linings, deserves a lot of credit for giving the film its energy. Here she compiles a soundtrack consisting of songs by Led Zeppelin, Electric Light Orchestra, Wings, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Chicago, Tom Jones, Mayssa Karaa, Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne and Duke Ellington.
After seeing Hustle, I echo the sentiments of Roger Ebert.com’s Christy Lemire, who in her review of Hustle for RogerEbert.com says that it out-Scorseses Martin Scorsese. Hustle reminds me most of Scorsese’s 1995 classic Casino, featuring similar elements throughout its run-time (casinos, the mob, deceptive housewives, a great 1970’s soundtrack) as well as utilizing a multiple-narrator story-telling construct that Scoresese so memorably used in Casino and Goodfellas.
However, where the Scorsese efforts deal mostly in the aura and legend of its real-life characters in order to add dramatic weight to its proceedings, Hustle does everything to deconstruct and even satirize them in the name of the movie’s anarchic mix of comedy, drama and even musical (operatic) themes in a rolling narrative that says a lot about people’s willingness to reinvent themselves and the desperation they are often under when they have to reinvent.
Reinvention is a major theme in Hustle: Rosenfeld, a small-scale dry cleaner operator/con man who sells fake Rembrandt on the side, meets future partner in crime Sydney Prosser at a mutual friend’s party a few years prior and begins a transformation that takes him further away from his suffocating suburban Long Island homelife the moment the two dance to Duke Ellington. Prosser, originally a stripper from the southwest, started her quest for reinvention by moving to New York and later working for Cosmopolitan Magazine, despite having no fashion or writing experience. After meeting Rosenfeld she changes once again, into Lady Edith Greenlee, a distinguished British woman “with banking connections in London” who puts an attractive face to Rosenfeld’s lending scam, setting the events of the film in motion.
All the while, hovering over Rosenfeld and Greenlee (and later the rest of the lead characters) is Lawrence’s Rosalyn, and like she did in Silver Linings, the 23-year-old smolders and plays well beyond her years as Rosenfeld’s wife — an intriguing mix of manipulation, ditzyness (one of the funniest moments in the film features Rosalyn in her first encounter with a microwave, putting metal in it and nearly burning her kitchen down) and sex appeal.
Like Irving and Edith, Rosalyn also tries to reinvent herself, first by inserting herself into the plans of Rosenfeld with Cooper’s fed character (whom she mistakenly identifies as an IRS agent) and then by attempting to find a new love of her own after finding out how deep Rosenfeld was in love with Prosser/Greenlee — again, she veers down a wrong path by getting next to one of the mob associates from Florida.
DiMaso (Cooper) has the most straight-ahead motivation for his reinvention, he wants to break out from the middle dregs of his federal work hierarchy while also escaping from his drab from his home life, a sad reality where he eats dinner in his bathroom and hides out from his mother and would-be fiance in a small Brooklyn apartment. Irving (professionally) and Edith (romantically) provide an opportunity for DiMaso’s to make a big name for himself in the FBI if he successfully catch politicians taking bribes in the ABSCAM operation. DiMaso is driven to make a name for himself at any cost and his over-stepping his bounds provides a lot of the tension in the latter half of the film.
Hustle is shaping up to be a big success, but as with any overwhelming success you’re bound to have contrarians. Reviews in Variety and the New York Post try to paint the film as “a mess,” claiming that the film’s script is highly improvised.
My response to these critiques is that American Hustle is a mess, but its a delicious mess, much in the way a big plate of nachos are a mess. As we go forward, a majority of film critics (and award voters) who weigh in on this matter should agree: American Hustle makes for a damn good movie, one I plan on watching again this weekend. See you at the movies.
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