David O. Russell wants that Oscar. He wants it really fucking badly, and he’s come pretty close to it a couple times.
Russell picked up a lot of steam for The Fighter, which secured nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, a double-nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and three other categories. Unfortunately, that movie was going up against Black Swan, The Social Network, and The King’s Speech. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo walked away with hardware, but Russell himself (and Amy Adams as well, I should add) left empty-handed.
So a couple years later, Russell came back with Silver Linings Playbook, and the Academy’s response was historic. This was the first time since Reds in 1981 when a film scored nominations in all four acting categories, and the first time since Million Dollar Baby in 2004 to get nominations in all of the Big Five (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and either of the Best Screenplay categories). Yet out of a whopping eight nominations, the only trophy went to Jennifer Lawrence.
So now, only a year later, we have American Hustle, the latest film directed and written by Russell. Right off the bat, you’ll notice that Russell has spliced his big Oscar nominees/winners together from his previous efforts. Christian Bale is here, Bradley Cooper is here, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are both here, and Robert De Niro even pokes his head in for a prominent yet uncredited cameo. Melissa Leo and Jacki Weaver are conspicuously missing, but the cast includes Russell newcomer Jeremy Renner, who just happens to have a Best Actor trophy for The Hurt Locker. Which brings me to the next interesting point.
(CORRECTION: I have since been reminded that Renner was only nominated for Best Actor, and lost that year to Jeff Bridges of Crazy Heart.)
The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook were both produced by the Weinstein Brothers. Given how those two are notorious awards campaigners who wrangled so many nods for Russell in the past, you’d think that they’d stick together, right? Well, I assume that someone in this arrangement wanted some more wins to go with all those nominations. I have no other explanation for why Megan Ellison’s name appears where I would normally be seeing Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Yes, Russell has now hitched his wagon to Annapurna Studios, which is a very interesting choice. Though Annapurna does have a sterling reputation in the arthouse circuit, the company’s Oscar cred consists entirely of three nominations for The Master, five nods for Zero Dark Thirty, and precisely one win — Best Sound Editing for the latter film. On paper, that doesn’t look like an upgrade from the Weinsteins. Then again, Annapurna is still a very new company, and their Her is another strong awards favorite this year. But I digress.
Anyway, I personally thought that Russell’s previous two films were overrated. The Fighter put too great an emphasis on Christian Bale’s character, leaving its alleged protagonist pitifully weak and underdeveloped, while Silver Linings Playbook leaned way too heavily on the weak-ass crutch of football superstition. I never agreed with the amount of Academy love those films got. But if American Hustle got upwards of half a dozen nominations, I wouldn’t complain one bit.
The film begins with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who started out with his father’s glass business and went on to own a small dry cleaning chain. He graduated to fencin stolen and counterfeit artwork on the side before starting up a fraudulent loan scheme. This is where the femme fatale comes in.
Amy Adams plays Sydney Prosser, alias Lady Edith Greensley, another grifter who came up from nowhere. She joins Irving’s loan scam by donning a fake British accent and posing as an aristocrat with loads of European money. Everything goes swimmingly until they cross paths with Richie DiMaso.
Richie (Bradley Cooper) is the FBI agent who goes undercover and succeeds in catching the couple. However, he agrees to let them go if they act as his consultants and use their con skills to help catch some bad guys. So Richie sets his sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of a New Jersey town called Camden.
Carmine is a genuinely good-hearted guy who sincerely has the best interests of New Jersey at heart. To that end, he’s determined to boost the economy and create jobs by renovating Atlantic City. Unfortunately, that takes money, and that means dipping into the wrong pot at the wrong time.
In short order, our protagonists aren’t just conning Carmine anymore. Increasingly powerful and dangerous individuals start coming out of the woodwork, all of them ready to get in on the big Atlantic City cash. And of course, Richie is eager to arrest the whole crooked lot of them. In turn, this means that increasing piles of taxpayer millions get put on the line to keep tricking evil bastards who could cause all manner of destruction the very moment they smell a rat.
At this point, I feel compelled to add that this film is inspired by a true story. I say “inspired by” because the characters’ names have all been changed, and the film’s laugh-worthy opening text states “Some of this story might have actually happened.”
Anyway, let’s take a closer look at what we’ve got here. You’ll notice that every single main character in this film gets deeper and deeper over their head as the plot continues. This is mostly because — with the possible exception of Carmine — whether it’s for their own gain or for their own egos, the characters are all set on screwing each other over at every possible turn.
Take Richie, for example. Whether he’s genuinely interested in seeing justice done or whether he just wants to be the guy in charge, Richie keeps charging ahead into deeper and more turbulent waters. With nothing but raw self-righteousness, he’s going up against some of the wealthiest and most powerful criminals in the nation. And he’s forcing Irving and Sydney along for the ride, partly because he already has leverage and partly because their lives are on the line as well. After all, if this whole thing goes south, a couple of con artists will likely be hit before a fed and a politician.
This brings me to Irving. He’s clearly the brains of the operation and the most capable con artist of the bunch, yet his advice keeps getting pushed further and further to the sidelines. The louder he keeps insisting that Richie take a step back, the more Irving is dragged into a situation he knows he can’t handle, and that pisses him off to no end. He’s used to being the guy in charge and Richie is forcing him to be little more than a mouthpiece, and he REALLY doesn’t like that.
Then there’s Sydney. She’s a very smart woman who’s compromised by her conflicted feelings for Irving. She’s obviously not happy with Irving for his part in getting them into this mess, but her feelings for Richie are unclear. There’s a strong sense that she’s playing her male colleagues, but which one and to what end?
So we’ve got the brains, the beauty, and the backer, all struggling to carry out their shared operation while working on their own individual agendas. All that’s left is to discuss the wild card.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Rosalyn, who happens to be Irving’s wife. Yes, Irving is married and he’s sleeping with Sydney on the side. Irving even adopted Rosalyn’s boy (Danny Rosenfeld, played by Danny and Sonny Corbo) and loves him as his own son. This provides yet another bit of leverage that Richie uses against Irving, and another reason why Sydney seems so fed up with him.
Getting back to Rosalyn, this bitch is straight-up crazy. Irving describes her as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive behavior,” but I think that Bipolar Disorder or some kind of drug addiction would be a better description. Rosalyn has a nasty tendency to do whatever she damn well pleases, no matter what the consequences are or how many people warn her otherwise (“Don’t put metal in the science oven!”). She’s also a vindictive bitch who tends to do things precisely to spite and/or harm others, and then find some flimsy way to avoid blame for it.
Perhaps worst of all, Rosalyn’s motivations and attitude toward Irving tend to fluctuate wildly. At the beginning, we’re led to believe that she’s perfectly fine with Irving’s criminal ways and his affair with Sydney. It doesn’t bother her any, since she still gets to lounge around and get wasted on Irving’s money. Plus, because she knows that he’s a criminal scumbag who deeply loves his adoptive son, she’ll always be able to guilt trip him into staying around. But as the proceedings go further, she can see her hold on him starting to slip. This makes her increasingly hostile toward Sydney and spiteful toward Irving, lashing out against them in unpredictable ways that endanger their precious mission. And remember, everything that goes wrong with the Carmine case is another chance for our main characters to end up in a shallow grave.
All of this means that we can never be sure what Rosalyn will do or who she’ll side with at any given time. It speaks volumes that Lawrence was able to take this uneven ogre of a character and make her work. Lawrence even manages to look gorgeous and have some fun with the role on occasion.
Speaking of gorgeous, Amy Adams. I thought she was red-hot before, but oh my sweet fucking God. I don’t think she’s ever looked sexier than she does in this movie. Yet there are also quite a few scenes in which Adams appears with minimal makeup, and she’s surprisingly game for that as well. Her accent sounded a touch inconsistent to me, but this is still another sterling Adams performance all the same. I don’t know if it’s enough for Adams to finally get a trophy, given the competition this year, but it’s worth a fifth nomination easily.
Moving on to Christian Bale, I was quite amused to see him buried in about fifty pounds of fat, some atrocious facial hair, and a comb-over that would make Donald Trump fall over laughing. Even so, Bale brings a kind of intensity to this role that shines through all that. The guy might look like a chump from a distance, but it’s still so obvious that Irving really knows what he’s talking about and he’s not an easy man to fool. Outstanding work.
As for Bradley Cooper, he was perfect for this role. The Hangover alumnus has proven himself perfectly capable as a dramatic actor (see: Silver Linings Playbook, The Place Beyond the Pines, etc.), which gives him the ideal skill set to play this bumbling FBI agent. Richie is interesting in that he’s not necessarily an idiot, he’s way just out of his element and too proud to admit it. More importantly, this character has a tremendous amount of power over his reluctant partners, and he knows how to use it. When he makes a threat to Irving and Sydney, there’s never any doubt that he means business. Yet Cooper can still wear a ton of curlers in his hair in such a way that it sells the joke. In anyone else’s hands, this character would have fallen totally flat.
As for Jeremy Renner, I’m sorry to say that his role doesn’t really demand too much. Because he’s the mark, Carmine is a very passive character who doesn’t really do much except react to everything happening around him. Still, Renner does get some great scenes opposite Bale, most notably at the end. Renner also does a very convincing job of playing the rare politician with a heart of gold, though I found that the actor was frequently upstaged by his own hair.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Louis C.K., who’s brilliant as always playing Richie’s put-upon boss. Michael Pena also gets a small amount of screen time, making himself unrecognizable to play an FBI agent posing as a wealthy sheik. I’ve already said that Robert De Niro gets a prominent cameo role, and I don’t dare say anything more about it than that.
Moving on to the production values, the film makes outstanding use of its period late-1970s setting. Though the costumes and hairstyles were distracting at times, their ostentatious nature is part of the point. Moreover, the soundtrack is absolutely brilliant and loaded with fantastic use of songs from the era. Duke Ellington was used particularly well, and there’s a very funny moment involving “Live and Let Die.”
So what are the nitpicks? Well, I personally thought that the first act laid on the voice-overs way too thick. I realize there’s a lot of backstory to dispense with, but there had to be a better way. Also, I’m of the personal opinion that a single movie doesn’t need multiple narrators. But maybe that’s just me.
Still, my biggest problem with this film is that it’s thematically, it could have and should have been much stronger. The characters pay a lot of lip service to the concept of doing whatever it takes to survive, but that point is never quite expressed in a way that hits the mark. In context, the sentiment usually means doing whatever it takes to keep from going broke or going to jail, which doesn’t exactly have the same “oomph.” I also got a vague parallel between Carmine and the politicians of today, but the movie passes up some great chances to elaborate on those parallels and use them to make some modern-day political commentary.
With all of that said, though American Hustle doesn’t exactly say anything new, its presentation is phenomenal. The actors are wonderful across the board, the period setting is well-utilized, and David O. Russell’s direction is impeccable. Russell presents all the dealings and double-dealings in such a way that it’s easy to keep track of who’s doing what, allowing for a storyline that stays coherent from beginning to end in spite of all the curveballs. Throw in some wonderful moments of comedy and suspense, and you’ve got a movie that definitely shouldn’t be missed.