October 24, 2015

American Hustle (2013)
Grade: 61/100

Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper

What it's about. Set circa 1979. Christian Bale is a con artist who makes a good living selling stolen and forged art, as well as accepting down payments on "loans" sans delivery of principal. His lover, and partner in crime, is Amy Adams, who affects a British accent. Bale is married to Jennifer Lawrence, a beautiful but disfunctional and troublemaking woman. Bale is stepfather to Lawrence's young son, and his bond with the tot has much greater value to him than his relationship with the meddlesome Lawrence.

Bale and Adams are busted by Federal agent Bradley Cooper, who offers them a deal: participate in a new FBI sting, Abscam, and you can walk. Cooper is much more aggressive than his cautious boss Louis C.K., and is strongly attracted to Adams. It's never clear whether Adams will eventually side with Bale or Cooper, and given that she is a con artist, she is probably playing both against each other.

Cooper's overweening career ambition and Bale's skill in setting up cons ensure the success of Abscam. Hapless Newark mayor Jeremy Renner is the first politician to take the suitcase of money that will eventually land him in Federal prison. Various congressmen follow his lead. The Abscam sting involves an Arab shiek (Michael Peñ) who will supposedly build casinos in Atlantic City, including generous payoffs to the Mafia. As notorious gangsters Robert DeNiro and Jack Huston become interested, Bale fears repercussions and looks for a way out. Because it is a movie, everything works out for everybody, except for the politicians filmed taking bribes.

How others will see it. American Hustle was nominated for a remarkable total of 27 awards at the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA. It was nominated in every consequential category, but lost in most. It did win Best Picture and Best Actress (Amy Adams) at the Golden Globes, and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence) at both the Globes and BAFTA.

In addition to its success with the critics, American Hustle made serious money at the box office, a total of $150M in U.S. theaters alone. This undoubtedly had much to do with the cast, tailored to appeal to several generations of audiences: Jennifer Lawrence for the Millenials, and Robert De Niro for the Social Security crowd.

David O. Russell (not to be confused with David O. Selznick) confirmed his reputation as an actor's director. Lawrence was the biggest beneficiary, proving that she could stand out in an all-star cast in a comic role. Bale also demonstrated that he could survive a strange hairstyle. Amy Adams succeeded in looking good at age 39.

At imdb.com, the film has a ginormous 330K user votes, but the user rating is somewhat lower than expected, particularly among female viewers between age 18 and 45. Skeptics note that the age gap between Lawrence and Bale is 16 years, which makes Lawrence implausible as the mother of post-toddler Danny. Russell's reliance on improvisation keeps the scenes spontaneous, but also makes them chaotic, not always a good thing. Lawrence is especially over the top, and Bradley Cooper comes a close second. Cooper assaults his boss Louis C.K. and injures him, and isn't as much as disciplined over it.

How I felt about it. The acting is over the top, but this is generally forgivable given the stress that the characters are under. Nonetheless, it is odd that Cooper attempts to have sex with Adams in a nightclub ladies' room; strange that Lawrence flirts outrageously with gangster Huston in the presence of Bale, Renner, and Renner's wife; curious that Huston would put a bag over Bale's head with Renner also in the car; and inconceivable that Cooper would beat his boss with a telephone because he wouldn't spend FBI money on a hotel suite. And that Cooper wouldn't get punished, in any way, for this incredible act of workplace violence.

It is nice to see Duke Ellington recognized in a movie for his enormous (but chiefly ignored) contribution to music. Although viewers will probably believe that Ellington is blowing the alto sax instead of Johnny Hodges.