Sunday, January 19, 2014

American Hustle: Is the Art of the Con the Art of Survival?

David O. Russell is one of the most interesting film directors working in the field today. From early films like Flirting With Disaster (1996) & Three Kings (1999) through recent successes like The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he’s shown an uncommon talent for picking good material and great actors to bring those stories to life. Now, with 2013’s American Hustle, he catapults to the front line of American filmmakers. The movie is a fictionalized version of the late 70s/early 80s FBI operation known as ABSCAM. As the tagline at the beginning of the film states, “Some of this actually happened.”

The story concerns Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con artist who is working scams with his partner and lover, Sydney Prescott. They are deeply in love, but Irving refuses to leave his wife & son for her. An ambitious FBI agent named Richie Dimasso catches them working a loan scam, but offers to let them go if they help him make some big-time arrests. What follows is a scheme that spirals out of control, as Irving & Sydney try to entrap Carmine Polito, a New Jersey mayor who’s working hard to bring casino gambling & resorts back to Atlantic City, in order to create jobs & grow both the state & local economies. As things escalate, all of the major players will be affected in ways they can’t imagine.

What’s interesting about the characters is they’re all scam artists in their own way, though sometimes they’re only conning themselves. Irving wants nothing more than for things to continue the way they’re going, running low-end scams, and enjoying his life with his mistress, while never leaving his wife. Sydney wants to be with Irving full-time, and deludes herself into believing he’ll leave his wife Rosalyn for her. Richie thinks a big bust will get him respect within the Bureau. Rosalyn thinks she can control Irving, and make him stay with her through guilt and intimidation. But her off-kilter behavior just might derail their carefully laid out plan to snare Polito. In a way, they’re all dreamers as much as they’re con artists. They all learn something by the time the story is over, though it may not be the lesson they expected; they learn how to survive. As Irving says at the end of the film: “The art of survival is a story that never ends.”

The cast is brilliant, with an unrecognizable Christian Bale letter perfect as Rosenfeld. He’s matched by co-stars Amy Adams as Sydney, Bradley Cooper as Dimasso, and Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn. The four leads offer us a master class in acting, and are outstanding in their roles. They all give brave, powerful performances. The supporting cast is amazing as well, led by Jeremy Renner as Polito, and a host of familiar faces in minor roles. The film looks fantastic, courtesy of cinematographer Linus Sandgren & art director Jesse Rosenthal. The song choices, which range from ELO to Jack Jones to Donna Summer, recall the way Scorsese uses music for effect in his movies. Another thing Russell’s film shares with some of Scorsese’s is the use of multiple (and possibly unreliable) narrators to relate the story from their viewpoint.

American Hustle is one of the best films of 2013, and truly deserves the accolades & awards it has received so far. It was just awarded 10 Oscar nominations, including nods in all four major acting categories, a feat it shares with director Russell’s last movie, Silver Linings Playbook. This may be his best film yet. This darkly comic tale is currently in theaters, and is one of those films that’s worth going out to see on movie night. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

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