According to unimpeachable sources (fine, Wikipedia), “Abscam” is the word used to define a series of highly unlawful, potentially boring, but surprisingly colorful criminal activities that took place in and around New Jersey in the late 1970s. As a child of the 1980s, I knew bits and pieces of the Abscam story, but it all seemed so complicated and, well, uninteresting to a young person who mainly focused on horror films and Mad Magazine.
Well, thank goodness for filmmakers like David O. Russell, ones who love nothing more than to sink their cinematic teeth into late-’70s scandals that involve money, sex, double-crosses, and lots of clueless people who are dabbling in crimes that are way out of their ballpark. Nobody could ever call the Abscam story the wildest or most ridiculous chapter of American criminal history, but it was big enough — not to mention insane enough — to warrant a big-screen Hollywood adaptation.
And it sure looks like celebrated director David O. Russell has approached American Hustle with his Martin Scorsese hat glued firmly to his head. That’s not a criticism. As he’s proved with films like Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, The Fighter, and Silver Linings Playbook, Mr. Russell is a filmmaker with a wide array of storytelling influences and inspirations — but let’s be straight here: American Hustle plays like a loving homage to the style, tempo, and energy of Scorsese’s best crime films. And I’m sure I’m not the first film nut who’ll notice it.
From its admirable focus on weird, dark comedy to a small handful of surprisingly touching character moments (and a collection of ’70s music that almost starts to feel like an extra character), American Hustle is a story about likable criminals, unhinged lawmen, and a whole lot of people trapped in the grey area between selfish and half-decent. Our anti-hero is a con man (Christian Bale) with a crazy ex-wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a strange new girlfriend (Amy Adams) who attracts the attention of an intense FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and plans to frame a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) to keep his own ass out of jail. There’s a lot more to it, but a plot synopsis about “the Abscam scandal” is really boring, so let’s leave it at this: American Hustle is about two low-end criminals who gradually get involved in stakes that are way out of their tax bracket.
Frankly I don’t think Mr. Russell or his co-writer Eric Warren Singer want to bore you with the dreary details of crime history; American Hustle is considerably more interested in the criminals than it is in their crimes, and therein lies the difference between a dry “biopic” and a story that’s based on actual events… but is also half bullshit. The film is at its best when its a dry and acerbic farce about a con man who refuses to admit he’s beat, a duplicitous woman who desperately wants to be a con artist but is also in love with a loser, and a low-level FBI operative who seems to be making things up as he goes along.
Put another way: the actors are the biggest reason to check out American Hustle. Christian Bale’s misplaced confidence and calm desperation are offset wonderfully by Bradley Cooper’s over-caffeinated performance. Amy Adams runs through a gamut of emotions in the film, and she even keeps the viewer guessing as to where her loyalties lie. Perhaps even better is Jennifer Lawrence as a frazzled ex-wife who is also the worst kind of dumb person: the kind that thinks she’s really smart. Credit the script and the editing as well, but American Hustle is quite simply an actor’s movie, and the entire ensemble is just fun to watch.
Bonus for the character actor junkies: this film is full of people like Shea Whigham, Elisabeth Rohm, Michael Pena, Anthony Zerbe, Robert De Niro, and Louis CK, who steals several scenes as an FBI boss who gets no respect. Toss in a fantastic late-’70s vibe (the art direction is superb and the soundtrack is a lot of fun) and a tongue-in-cheek tone mixed with some legitimate empathy for all the slightly proficient con artists of the world, and you have one of the more accomplished Scorsese homages of the past several years. Forget about the plot, focus on the actors, and enjoy the music.
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