How does one write a critical review of a movie that plays as nothing less than perfect?
It was a shock when, after receiving ten Academy Award nominations, David O. Russell's American Hustle came away from the Oscar ceremony without a single win. Russell and Eric Warren Singer's original screenplay is easily the year's most accomplished, and the show's acting and directing is pitched at a level way over the heads of most of its competition. 2013 saw some fine pictures, but none took this viewer as many places and through as many paces as this funny, suspenseful thriller. Director Russell's ensemble of fresh characters pays little heed to PC conventions as the film veers from giddy excitement to nearly unbearable tension.
An eccentric retelling of the ABSCAM bribery scandal, American Hustle is about the shaky forced alliance of an ace con man and an overly ambitious FBI agent. The high-risk deceptions keep getting more intense, as the federal agent pressures the crook to do the government's police work. It's the late 1970s era of awful clothing fashions and the disco attitude to life in the fast lane -- our amoral characters assume that making a living requires scamming somebody. They leap into danger seemingly out of sheer faith that smart people never get hurt.
When the show begins, the FBI's Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper of Silver Linings Playbook) catches con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) red-handed bilking people in a loan scam. In flashback, lifelong confidence crook Irving meets the adventurous, risk-loving Sydney at a pool party and they discover they're a match made in heaven: Sydney's had a rough time and is ready to commit to whatever schemes Irving comes up with. She assumes the name "Lady Edith Greensly" to help sell forged art before Irving devises a lucrative racket, coaxing suckers into plunking down $5,000 to secure loans that never come through. Irving's stumbling block is his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a brainless and erratic loose cannon. But Rosalyn easily manipulates Irving with irrational arguments, sex and the threat of estrangement from his young son. Agent DiMaso uses his captive con artists to entrap Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) into accepting a bribe on surveillance video. Polito sincerely wants to redevelop his town, and welcomes Irving as a new friend. While Irving is occupied the ambitious DiMaso initiates a wild relationship with Lady Edith. Irving invents a fake Arab Sheik as bait to pull more greedy politicians into DiMaso's sting operation. But when the fake promise of Arabian investment money brings the Miami Mafia into the deal, Irving and Lady Edith realize that they are in way over their heads.
American Hustle knocks us over with its tale of sleazy movers and shakers caught up in the feverish Jimmy Carter years of high interest rates, fast cash and easy sex. It's all about deceptive appearances. One of the leading men maintains a ridiculously complicated comb-over to hide his baldness, while the other sleeps in curlers every night to give himself a trendy macho hairstyle. Another main player's disco-era haircut frequently looks like some kind of plant growth atop his head. Nobody is what he seems. Christian Bale's crooked Irving has a wild reputation but would rather play the safe cons. His bad heart can barely handle the stress when he's suddenly dealing with mobsters that can put them all in their graves. Amy Adams' highly intelligent Sydney affects her polished British "Lady Edith" persona to impress customers/victims, and wears daring / trashy open-front '70s fashions to further distract her prey. Her charms are not lost on Richie, either. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence's aggravating Rosalyn proves to be a serious menace. She knows just enough to blow the lid off the whole deal, and can't be made to shut up. It's a brilliant character of a kind that just doesn't turn up in movies.
The morally twisted world of high-level law enforcement stings is also a central concern. FBI guy Richie DiMaso is really a con man with a badge; he enjoys blackmailing crooks for the purpose of nailing bigger crooks. Richie's Scam Strategy is a game of musical chairs played with a briefcase full of money: if the target patsy accepts the briefcase he can be charged with accepting a bribe. But everything else about the supposed bribe is con game, a cheap trick: how can there be a Real Criminal in a Fake Crime? Mayor Polito is trying to get a community revitialization project going in a tight economy, not skim money for himself. The temptation laid before him is so dishonest that he seems a relative innocent.
Irving and Lady Edith help DiMaso ambush the sympathetic Mayor Polito, but Richie is so hungry for a history-making bust that he goes over the head of his FBI superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C. K.). Things get insane when the sensible, shrewd Irving loses control of the stings -- the FBI replaces Irving's fake Arab Sheik with an imposter who wouldn't fool the first Middle Eastern bellboy he encounters. The loss of control eventually reaches epic proportions when Irving, Richie and the poor duped Mayor Polito show up to meet a possible investor -- and find that the head of the most powerful Mob going is waiting for them in a back room. And he's ready to deal, right now. The reveal of the top guy is a chilling surprise that this reviewer won't spoil.
American Hustle is being compared to The Sting due to its complicated scams (but little else). Stephen Frears' excellent The Grifters comes to mind as well, but that there's really nothing like David O. Russell unique blend of elements. Nothing is predictable. The story never turns into an action film or a chase picture. The one time someone pulls a gun, nothing happens. The fascinating characters remain the central focus, and continue to surprise us right up to the very end. Richie begins to think he can do no wrong. Irving thinks he's losing Lady Edith to Richie, but is equally mortified by being forced to play Judas to the one man he's come to admire, the essentially decent Mayor Polito. Can Irving navigate a way out of this mess?
David O. Russell and his actors are phenomenal -- the show can only be described as an ensemble in which each actor has a leading star role. It might be the best showcase for them all. The Batman and Hunger Games franchises seem a waste of time by comparison, while the entertaining Silver Linings Playbook now seems too formulaic.
Am I praising this film too much? What does one write when a movie is so good, one can't think of a single critical remark? Maybe I had better quit while I'm ahead. I don't think I've hit upon any real spoilers, although it's of course best to see good movies knowing as little about them as possible. I only hope the makers of American Hustle haven't been discouraged by the Academy's lack of appreciation.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet of American Hustle is the expected flawless presentation, video and audio. The IMDB's technical stats are usually fairly reliable, and indicate that the movie was filmed in Techniscope. Could this really be the old 2-perf-pulldown "flat-widescreen" format from the 1960s? One amusing in-joke is the film's use of the 1977 Columbia Pictures logo, an ugly corporate animation seen on pix like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It helps prepare film buffs for the onslaught of disco madness that follows. Lady Edith and Richie DiMaso even spend a wild night partying on the dance floor, retiring to a stall in a crowded women's room for some amorous privacy. The makers of American Hustle pack the soundtrack with terrific needle-drop cues, and come up with a great disco dance tune that isn't by the Bee Gees or Donna Summer. (wrong! The song is by Donna Summer after all!)
Sony's disc has two extras. A making-of featurette has some pleasant on-set footage of the stars, and a selection of deleted / extended scenes is present as well. American Hustle is for this reviewer the most satisfying and entertaining feature film of 2013.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
American Hustle Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet rates: