There are a number of reasons why director David O. Russell decided to open his 2010 film The Fighter with the song “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy. In part that soundtrack selection worked simply because it was a cool recording that fit that film’s energy, or maybe it was because it worked as a neat little callback at the end of the film. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a subtle middle finger to all the people who’d dismissed him as a has-been while he sat in “movie jail” for most of the 2000s because of some unfortunate on set behavior. It took him five year to make a follow-up to his seminal 1999 film Three Kings and another six years to make a follow up that. Then he somehow managed to make three movies in the last four years and have each one of them be a commercial, critical, and awards success. In short, the man is on fire, and he seems to be continuing his winning streak with his most recent effort: American Hustle.
The film is a heavily fictionalized take on the semi-obscure 1978 ABSCAM scandal in which the FBI teamed up with a con artist to investigate political corruption surrounding the creation of casinos in Atlantic City. At the heart of it all was a two-bit con artist named Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who was busted along with his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) for perpetrating a sham loan procurement operation by an ambitious FBI agent named Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper). Given a choice of cooperating with the FBI or going to prison, the two propose an ambitious sting operation in which they’d use a fake Arab sheik as bait for various moneyed interests who’d do illegal things to get into his favor. Their operation begins to focus in on a city councilman named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a man who seems to genuinely believe his ostensibly corrupt actions will help the people of his district. Because of this, Rosenfeld gradually becomes more scared and depressed about the fact that he’s leading Polito into a nasty trap.
American Hustle is not completely unlike his previous two films; it shares a handful of actors with those projects and is about blue-collar white urbanites. I’m almost tempted to group the three films as his “East Coast trilogy.” However, there are some key differences. For one thing, this movie feels fairly low-key when compared to the often rather caffeinated pace of The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook. A movie that I’d more readily compare it to is Quentin Tarentino’s Jackie Brown, which was also a sly little crime movie in which a number of smart crooks plot and scheme against one another with the goal of seeing who comes out on top. However, there is a somewhat complex morality at the center of all the scheming. The film’s most likable character is the semi-crooked politician played by Jeremy Renner, and yet he’s ostensibly the crook that the film’s central task force is trying to bring down. The FBI agents on the other hand seem to be careerists who care more about the letter of the law than actually helping society, and yet they aren’t actually doing anything that is wrong either legally or even in principle really. Sorting all of this out is Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, a man who’s certainly a criminal and to some extent a scumbag, but for most of the movie he’s mostly trying to do the right thing while protecting himself and his family.
Another big difference from Russell’s previous films is that this film is distinctly set in the past, specifically the 1970s. This was something of a double edged sword in my eyes because while this setting gives the film some flavor I couldn’t help but feel like Russell really laid it on a bit thick with the retro clothing and hairstyles. Almost every section of every shot seems to have been filled to the limit with tacky nonsense from that decade, and rather than immerse me in the setting it often felt more like a distraction. We’ve seen the late 70s depicted in a lot of recent films like Argo, Super 8, and Munich and I think each of those films were able to capture the period with a bit more nuance and without drawing as much attention to itself. Otherwise though, Russell’s visual style here is most solid, if perhaps not revelatory or wildly unexpected.
Between Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter Russell was able to direct seven different Academy Award nominated performances including nominated performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, who’ve all returned to form the core cast of American Hustle. Christian Bale’s work is probably the most immediately impressive if only because he’s rendered himself nearly unrecognizable once again through one of his patented weight fluctuations. This time he’s added a bunch of weight and shaved a bald spot into his head. Combined with the film’s wacky 70s costumes his reminded me a bit of Sean Penn similarly transformative work in the movie Carlito’s Way, but beneath the surface is a fairly restrained performance which potrays his character as a man who is constantly nervous and always trying to think of a way out of the crazy situation that he’s in the middle of. Perhaps the even more transformative performance comes from Jeremy Renner, an actor who isn’t the most consistent but who can really knock it out of the park at times. Here he really fades into a role that’s one part Leslie Knope and one part Joe Pesci.
Bradley Cooper is an actor who I believed to be incredibly unlikable until I saw his work in Silver Linings Playbook in which he gave a performance that instantly redeemed him in my eyes. He’s good here too, but his role is a little less central and it often leans more towards comic relief in a certain way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that though. His often coked up character is a lot of fun to watch and he has an excellent rapport with Louis C.K., who has a small role as his boss in the agency. Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook co-star Jennifer Lawrence is also here in a supporting role as the ditsy wife of Christian Bale’s character. Like Cooper, she’s sort of a comic relief and her character is a bit broad at times, but she does deliver a pretty memorable performance just the same. Amongst all these flashy performances Amy Adams seems almost like the odd one out given her (relatively) down to earth character, but I suspect that upon second examination that she may be the glue holding the whole thing together.
American Hustle may well be my “safe” recommendation for the 2013 award season. By that I mean that it’s the movie this year that I can recommend to pretty much anyone from any walk of life and have a pretty reasonable expectation that they’ll enjoy it. That doesn’t mean it’s the best of the movies that I could be recommending, just that it’s one that’s pretty accessible to your average audience member and will please and entertain pretty much anyone that sees it. Argo worked well in that role last year and Midnight in Paris did it the year before. Personally, I liked and respected the movie quite a bit. In enjoyed it almost the whole way through and think it has a lot to make it worthy of being recommended. But did I love it? Eh, not so much. I don’t have a particularly logical set of reason either; it just sort of failed to illicit that tingle that goes down my spine while I’m in the presence of greatness. Silver Linings Playbook gave me that tingle even though it had elements which, on paper, are bigger flaws. Still, this movie is definitely solid and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from running out to see it.
***1/2 out of Four