Movie review: American Hustle directed by David O’Russell

Synopsis:

1978, USA. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a middle-aged, ordinary guy with a pair of tinted eyeglasses, a paunch and a toupee, runs a few dry cleaning shops and a little conning operation by the side. He is doing well but he wants something better. One day, at a party, he meets Sydney Posser (Amy Adams), an ex-stripper who is now working a clerical job at Cosmopolitan magazine. After a few dates which feature such a posh flirt technique as canoodling in racks of dry cleaned clothes, Irving confides in Sydney that he’s a con man. His scam consists of taking a fee from people promising them bank loans that they won’t actually get. At that point Sydney’s eyes gleam – she suggests that he might want a partner: herself. She plans to pose as Lady Edith Greensley, a British aristocrat who is looking to invest her fictional millions and has some interesting ‘banking connections’ which can, apparently, turn straw into gold. It seems even before the times of Harry Potter wizards inhabited the British Isles, London in particular ;p.

Anyway their cooperation works like a wonder – the sex appeal of Sydney/lady Edith combined with the solidity of Irvin’s paunch make people fall over themselves to do business with those two. Soon they can focus entirely on the banking scam, earning far more money any of them was able to make on their own. Their private life thrives as well: although Irving is a father and a married man, with a young, pretty wife called Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), he continues an affair with Sydney (but now they meet in much more comfortable places). All is great until their successes draw the attention of FBI or more precisely an ambitious FBI agent, Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Irving and Lady Edith are caught red-handed by him and then arm-twisted into a close cooperation. Richard wants to use these two to bait the really big fish – politicians and mobsters hiding in the highest places.

Soon enough, there’s a Mexican pretending to be an Arab Sheikh from Dubai, Jeremy Renner’s playing a politician in a wig that makes him look like an out-of-work Elvis impersonator, Robert De Niro as an Arab-speaking mobster rules the casino business in the wings and other sleights of hand. It gets dangerous as hell in no time so all of a sudden all hell is breaking loose: Sydney wants to get out, Rosalyn wants Irving to talk to her more (and no, she is not stupid, she knows what’s happening around her), Richard wants to become the local legend in FBI and a big boss, all the people who have met the fake Arab sheikh want his money, the fake sheikh wants a casino and Irving wants some peace and quiet. Will he be able to choose between Sydney and Rosalyn? Will Sydney leave Irving for Richard and start a normal life, free from deceit? Will Robert De Niro kill everyone? Can Irving come up with a plan that will get everyone what they want? Don’t bet on it.

My impressions:

If a movie’s got 10 nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences it must be good, right? Maybe even awesome… I admit I wanted to watch American Hustle very much, expecting something really original at least. The result? Here’s the good news and the bad news combined in one statement: the movie is more or less fun if you can distract yourself from the illogical bits by focusing on the hairdos, wigs or gaping necklines of female outfits. Did those deserve as many nominations? We-ell…that’s quite another story.

I grant it, the premise is interesting because, basically, there are no clear division into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys here. Four preposterous characters launch into something like a dysfunctional four-way comedy routine. They hate and love and suspect each other; each of them is resigned to the possibility of being hustled by his or her criminal colleagues, fully known that self-deception and self-hustle is what gets you through the day. No one remains with a pair of clean hands because they didn’t have them in the first place.

Christian Bale plays Irv Rosenfeld who tries to walk that fine line between clever and stupid. Irv is married to highly strung Rosalyn. He calls his wife the “Picasso of passive-aggressive karate”, a killer line for which co-screenwriters Russell and Eric Singer deserve a special mini-Oscar, something like ‘the best line of the year’. Apparently, when De Niro came to shoot his first scene with Bale, he couldn’t recognize him in his Irving make-up. I had a hard time recognizing him too, with Irving’s paunch, toupées, combovers and tinted glasses. The paunch, incidentally, is real – allegedly Bale put on almost 20 kilos to do this role. The entire film rests on the character played by him and he is really good as the grumpy conman, a combination of arrogance, insecurity, ambition and a peculiar but endearing brand of integrity. Partnered with Amy Adams, who plays a sociopath woman, so enamoured with a more glamorous version of herself that she is unable to abandon her British accent and her ‘lady’ persona after a while, those two create some really enjoyable scenes. Only once Bradley Cooper steals the show from them – when you visit him in private and find out that the gung-ho FBI agent actually shares his flat with his mom and goes around with curlers in his hair to achieve that stylish ‘Italian’ or ‘African’ look 🙂 . How not to like him even a little bit?

Unfortunately, sometimes the narration moves too slowly and, what’s even worse, logic leaves the room too often. The plot that’s supposed to hook the big guys is barely credible and too little of the reasoning and motivations are worked out clearly. It doesn’t make sense that two small-time con artists and one rookie agent would be able to vault themselves into the big league so easily, without anybody suspecting foul play. No one asks about Irving, no one’s heard of his past frauds even though he’s got arrested by the FBI. Halfway into the film, Richard seems to go entirely crazy, either because he’s driven to distraction by his insane ambition or his lust. Whatever it is, it doesn’t entirely add up. What’s more, the director suggests some events were actually real as  American Hustle opens with the words: “Some of this actually happened.”

Still the characters had been altered (mostly to be more comedic) and the truth had been exaggerated for the film. A more serious story of political corruption has been re-imagined into a comedy where history replays itself as farce. In addition, most of the characters were significantly older in real life than they are portrayed to be onscreen, short of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent Richie DiMaso and Irving Rosenfeld’s mistress Sydney Prosser. The real Irving Rosenfeld, Mel Weinberg, was in his mid-fifties at the time of the movie’s events and his wife (portrayed by the much younger Jennifer Lawrence in the film) was approaching her late forties.

More in-depth comparison between the Abscam reality and the American Hustle fiction can be found clicking on those links:

Final verdict:

A nice movie with some great lines and truly funny moments. Still I wouldn’t call it ‘the best film of the year’, mainly because it brought nothing new and was partially a bit boring. ‘Nice’ is not always a positive adjective, especially when you expect something outstanding or ground-shattering and you get just ‘nice’. It is not a second ‘American Beauty’.

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7 Responses to Movie review: American Hustle directed by David O’Russell

  1. blodeuedd says:

    I read this article where she was all why do everyone love this movie, it’s not the best of the year, it feels like we have been told so and have believed it

    • It’s a fact: Americans love movies about themselves and Oscars are awarded by Americans. You should also take into consideration a distinct possibility that all Oscar nominations are rigged to some extend. The result? Not very fabulous movies got a fabulous number of awards.

  2. heidenkind says:

    Aren’t all movies about ‘Merica? 😉

  3. red witch says:

    Some very questionable movies get Oscars.
    @In addition, most of the characters were significantly older in real life than they are portrayed to be onscreen, short of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent Richie DiMaso and Irving Rosenfeld’s mistress Sydney Prosser. The real Irving Rosenfeld, Mel Weinberg, was in his mid-fifties at the time of the movie’s events and his wife (portrayed by the much younger Jennifer Lawrence in the film) was approaching her late forties.
    Hollywood worships youth. Most of our society thinks only the young and beautiful have value. Not surprised everyone was made younger. It is mostly teens that go to the theatre.

    • Hollywood worships youth. Most of our society thinks only the young and beautiful have value. Not surprised everyone was made younger. It is mostly teens that go to the theatre.

      It’s like catch 22. Older folk don’t have any incentive to go to the cinema because most of the movies feature young, rather immature people having silly problems. There are less and less movies for mature audience because they don’t go to the cinema. Still I am going to watch Osage County as soon as it is available. I like Meryl Streep :).

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