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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Review: American Hustle

Early in American Hustle, two men stand in front of a Rembrandt painting in an art gallery. "It's a fake," one man says to the other. "Now who's the master - the painter or the forger?"

It's easy to chalk up this small exchange to the movie's larger narrative about cons and the people who pull them off. But a small part of me really wants to believe this is a very meta, genius comment from director David O. Russell referencing American Hustle's imitation of a Martin Scorsese film. Heaps of critics are calling American Hustle a Scorsese movie directed by David O. Russell. And as Russell alludes, creating a movie that recalls the likes of Casino and Goodfellas without feeling like a bland imitation is a serious achievement. 

The plot of American Hustle is loosely based on the Abscam caper, an FBI sting from the '70s targeting corruption in public officials. Fortunately the film uses this real-life event as inspiration, but doesn't take it as gospel; Abscam makes for a loose outline, and Russell colors in the details using characters of his own invention. After sitting through way too many "true" stories this year, it was nice to see one that didn't feel like a straight-up dramatization. On the contrary, American Hustle is surprisingly funny.  

The strength of American Hustle comes from its ensemble. We get great performances from the likes of Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and even Louis CK. Everyone in American Hustle plays a character trying to improve their standing in life, using their own moral code to justify their choices. This translates to basically every character in the movie trying to con everyone else. Allegiances become difficult to predict, and there is no clearly definable protagonist and antagonist. Along those lines, Cooper's portrayal of FBI agent Richie DiMaso was my personal favorite. Cooper uses some of the same unpredictable, mood-swinging, trying-so-hard characterization we saw in Silver Linings Playbook, creating a character you hate and love in equal measure. 

Of the entire ensemble, though, Lawrence is most likely to garner an Academy nod for her portrayal of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, a scorned and hilarious housewife resembling Sharon Stone's character in Casino. And like Casino, I'm willing to bet American Hustle lands two nominations: best director and best supporting actress. The Scorsese impression doesn't end only with the genre and characters, though. American Hustle uses a similar style of cinematography,  following characters through long shots backed by pulsing rock music. It also uses voice over narration from various characters throughout the story, akin to the narrative styling seen in Goodfellas.

For a film that runs for 2 hours and 20 minutes, American Hustle is really tight and quick-paced right up until the third act. Unfortunately, towards the end of the film the focus shifts away from the well-crafted characters and back to telling the actual story, and this is where things start to get draggy. With some minor editing to push forward the pace of that final third of the film, American Hustle would have had great pacing. 

Pacing complaints aside, this is my favorite Russell film so far and excelled both as a comedy and as one of the more surprising love stories of the year. We'll see how it holds up against an actual Scorsese movie in a few days, but I give it an A

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