American Hustle (★★★½)

american_hustle_ver6Amplified expectations rarely ever end up being a good thing in the film world, especially in terms of Oscars. Except in terms of the attention paid to your movie, flying under the radar is the way to capture the hearts and often the votes of the Academy. That being said, for me at least American Hustle represents a heavily anticipated flick that mostly lives up to the hype. David O. Russell has slowly been cozying up to Academy members with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but with American Hustle, this is easily his clearest attempt to win awards. It’s a terrifically entertaining caper comedy that calls to mind the films of the 1970’s, which rarely hurts. Though not a comedy, Argo made use of that last year on its way to victory. Now, I don’t see American Hustle winning this year anymore (though some still do), but I will say it’s an incredibly good time at the movies. Russell’s direction is as accomplished as ever (even if his script sometimes is a bit more hit and miss), while the A-list cast gets to have a lot of fun. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence steal their scenes (especially the latter, who’s insanely good), while Amy Adams and Christian Bale are excellent too. It’s a real ensemble piece, with everyone pulling their weight. Removed from the awards season, this is top notch entertainment. Propped up against other Oscar contenders, well…then it gets a bit more dicey, but don’t count it out.

A fictionalized retelling of the Abscam sting operation that the FBI ran in the late 70’s and early 80’s, we first meet con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and his partner/lover Sydney Prosser (Adams) in the midst of a scam that FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) has them running on New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). We then flash back to see how Irving and Sydney met, how they came to have to work for Richie, and how nutty Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) is. Before long, the “hustle” is getting more and more complex, with Richie trying to impress his bureau superiors (Louis C.K. and Alessandro Nivola), the mafia getting involves (Robert De Niro in one great tension filled scene) while Irving and Sydney feud/hope that Rosalyn doesn’t wind up ruining everything and basically just cross their fingers that they make it out of the scam alive. Things wrap up a little easier than you’d expect, but the fun is in watching it all come together along the way.

American_Hustle_Jennifer_LawrenceI think everyone in the cast turns in some very strong work, but it’s impossible not to start with Jennifer Lawrence. She’s a spark plug and livens up the movie in a big way whenever she’s on the screen. Had she not just won the Oscar last year, I’d say she’d be a lock to win this year. Hell, she’s still in play to win now, she’s just that good. It’s one of the most memorable performances of the year. Lawrence owns the role and every piece of the movie that she’s in. Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams are next in line, both of whom are nomination worthy as well, with the former nearly reaching Lawrence level in the film. Cooper is manic in a different way from his nominated turn last year, but no less entertaining, especially at his wildest moments. He’s scummier here, but everyone is a bit of a sleaze in one way or another. Adams spends a good portion of the movie putting on a fake British accent, and while it’s not perfect, it works for the character. Had her role not been very slightly shortchanged on the screenplay level, I think we’d be talking about her as a potential Best Actress winner. As for Christian Bale, he’s great too, but the visual transformation is more notable than his somewhat subdued performance. It’s high quality work, don’t get me wrong, but he doesn’t have the moments that Adams, Cooper, and especially Lawrence do (though he and Lawrence have a wonderfully funny few scenes together in their bedroom). Jeremy Renner is the least impressive of the main players, but he’s still quite good. His character is just the simplest and the least attention is paid to him. Renner’s character could have been handled better, that’s for sure. In supporting turns we have the aforementioned Louis C.K., Robert De Niro, and Alessandro Nivola, along with the likes of Paul Herman, Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Elisabeth Röhm, and Shea Whigham. It’s Lawrence who steals the show though.

Visually, I think Russell has never been better. On a writing level though, this is one of his least memorable efforts. I do wonder how much had to do with him re-writing Eric Singer‘s original script. Perhaps their styles didn’t mix as well as he’d originally hoped? It’s a good script, just not a great one. It’s especially noticeable because of how well directed the flick is. Russell for the first time has turned in work that’s better on the directorial level. The costumes, sets, and production design on the whole are top notch…it’s just the writing that’s lacking the spark that everything else has. The dialogue is amusing, but at times the film becomes too wrapped up in the hustle and forgets to keep things moving. When your movie runs almost 140 minutes, you really don’t want to have that problem.

In terms of awards, I think American Hustle will likely still score somewhere between four and eight nods, but I’m not sure how many of those noms will now translate into wins. Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay are longer shots now, with Actor basically off the table. Aside from whatever technical citations it can secure, the major chances for a win will come from Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress. One of those could potentially happen (especially Supporting Actress), but none are anywhere near a sure thing.

Basically, American Hustle is in contention for a spot at the tail end of my top ten of 2013 list (currently sitting at number nine, in case you wanted specifics), but even a fan of the film like myself can’t help but think that the potential was there for something even better. I know some like the movie even more than I do and others don’t care much for the flick, so it’s divisive to some degree. That’s not a good recipe for winning awards, but we shall see since it’s doing rather well on the precursor circuit so far. Regardless of that, this is a fun flick that I think is well worth seeing. It may not be a modern classic, but it’s super enjoyable…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!