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‘American Hustle’ Review

American Hustle review
Sony Pictures

There is so much hair in ‘American Hustle.’

Christian Bale‘s disastrous comb-over/rug combo basically opens the film with a wordless monologue. Beneath that unnatural mop is the sharp mind of Irving Rosenfeld, a “from the feet up” con man making the leap from running legit (but boring) dry cleaning businesses to grifting down-on-their-luck rubes on bad bank loans. His operation starts taking off when he hooks up with Amy Adams, a natural businesswoman looking to reinvent herself. She does this with a name change, a phony British accent and, later in the film, by frizzing her hair out to preposterous proportions.

By this part in the film she’s already fallen for poodle coiffed FBI man Bradley Cooper, a smothered Italian-American who lives with his mother and puts his hair in tight pink curlers each night. Then there’s Jeremy Renner, the mayor of Camden who keeps a photo of JFK on his wall and wears an atomic bouffant.

Renner plays just about the only good person in this film, but, unfortunately, he’s also a politician about to accept and distribute some series bribes from an Arab sheik to get casinos and hotels built in Atlantic City. He’s our mark – and the scheme is laid out by Bale and Adams and the behest of Cooper and the FBI, who will throw them in jail if they don’t comply.

A love triangle is to be expected, sure, as is the ‘Donnie Brasco’-esque guilt of setting up a decent person who just happens to be on the wrong side of the law. What’s surprising, and ultimately memorable about ‘American Hustle,’ is how it presents the highs that come from executing a scam. Cooper’s careerist FBI man falls in love with the life of a master manipulator, and it is clear that how he’ll get his man is not much different from what Bale was doing to make quick $5K checks.

Even though ‘American Hustle’ is based on a truth (the so-called Abscam stings from 1980) the fact that this is set around Atlantic City with its Monopoly board game associations is just perfect. Plus, director David O. Russell is back on the sure turf of his recent successes ‘The Fighter’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ to play-up the exaggerated characteristics of East Coast “ethnic whites.”

Which brings us to another elaborate haircut, this one worn by Jennifer Lawrence as the paranoid, motormouth housewife of Christian Bale. Even though J-Law can’t quite nail the Long Island/New Jersey accent, it’s a remarkable performance that exploits the nail polish and housecoats and blonde locks that dangle over her youthful visage (when she finally gets to dress up and go out to a party) and puts all that aside. She’s cartoony, but in an unusual way – as a heartbreaking nuisance, neither victim or villain, but a little of both – a wacky 80s mom from the suburbs who just happens to blab her way into a multimillion dollar real estate deal involving the Mafia.

Wait, let me back that up – a fake real estate deal. Because the other thread in the film, although not quite as successful, is a discussion of authenticity. If people believe what they want to believe, what’s to say you aren’t who you present yourself as? Why can’t Michael Pena wear a white robe and pass himself off as an Arab sheik?

‘American Hustle’ is one of those extremely watchable movies that will suck you into a cable tractor beam when you come across it for the next ten years. A lot of really great scenes. It also meanders a bit, and there were about three different times where I thought “oh, here’s the ending” but it kept on going. And it may not be fair, but it is impossible not to compare it to Scorsese classics like ‘GoodFellas’ or ‘Casino.’

David O. Russell digs his own grave there with the cool shots of characters walking toward the camera in nifty outfits (oh my word, Amy Adams’ low-cut numbers) to classic rock needle drops. Some of them are deep cuts like Todd Rundgren, early Chicago and Steely Dan, but then there’s some played-out stuff like Santana’s “Evil Ways,” America’s “Horse With No Name” and Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” When Bale and Adams’ characters first meet they bond over their love of Duke Ellington. They even dig up the classic ‘Ellington at Newport’ album and the tune “Jeep’s Blues” becomes a motif for the film. Not for nothing, but if this were a Martin Scorsese film he would have found a way to incorporate the manic 15 minute “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.”

I really disliked the second half of ‘Silver Linings Playbook.’ I thought the dance contest and the escalating bets were idiotic and spoiled all the good will earned in the first half of the film. ‘American Hustle’ is a hundred times more fun to watch. And yet, last year’s movie is still more effective on an emotional level. ‘American Hustle’ has flash and quotable lines and a lot of zip, and it even has intellectually stimulating themes, but there’s a bit of a scam it’s trying to pull that prevents it from being a truly great film.‘American Hustle’ opens in select theaters on December 13 and nationwide on December 20.

Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.

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