“American Hustle” not a Scorsese film
“American Hustle” is the best Martin Scorsese movie since “Casino.” Maybe even since “Goodfellas.” But here’s the funny thing: It’s not a Martin Scorsese film. Oh, it sure seems like one. It’s a story about lowlifes and con men in the 1970’s, always one score away from making it big-time. Even Robert DeNiro, Scorsese’s favorite actor, makes an appearance. The film even starts in the middle of the story – another Scorsese technique. But this film was directed by David O. Russell, the man who gave us the cute and uplifting “Silver Linings Playbook” last year. “American Hustle” is a completely different kind of picture, although Russell does re-use “Playbooks” actors Bradley Cooper and Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, again to great effect.
“American Hustle” tells the story of small-time con artist Irvin Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale, who falls in love with sexy and intelligent Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams. The two of them operate a mildly-successful embezzlement business until they are arrested in an FBI sting, led by Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper. Cooper, also attracted to Sydney, agrees to let the two off the hook, provided they help him nab four more con-men. Eventually, this sting operation envelops Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, played by Jeremy Renner. Polito is involved in bringing gambling to Atlantic City, which of course attracts mobsters, an Arab sheik, and you get the idea. While this set-up sounds complicated, “American Hustle” is not difficult to follow. In fact, half the thrill is determining which characters are conning whom. The end result of all this fervor is the FBI’s famous ABSCAM sting of the late ’70s, which nabbed several U.S. congressmen and senators accepting bribes.
I want to pay tribute to three aspects of “American Hustle” that I absolutely loved. First is the script. Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, the script takes what, in lesser hands, could have been a complicated mess of a story and makes it not only easy to follow, but fun. “American Hustle” is an enjoyable romp through the New York underworld of the ’70s, and the characters, while admittedly the dregs of society, are smart and supremely interesting. There are enough double-crosses in this picture that it reminded me of something David Mamet might have written. And as in a Mamet screenplay, everything makes sense. No plot twists are pulled out of the proverbial magician’s hat. This is one of those movies where you’ll want to see it a second time to pick up the clues you missed the first time.
Second is the acting. I’ve never thought of Amy Adams as sultry, but she certainly rings that bell here. She appears in almost every scene, and I don’t think she wears undergarments in any of them. As usual though, Adams’ character is the smartest person in the entire movie. She has a way of controlling the action to get what she wants, and she plays the other characters off one other to accomplish her goals. In fact, Adams is the one character that doesn’t seem like she belongs in a Martin Scorsese film. Scorsese’s pictures are filled with complex male characters, but his females are typically wives, girlfriends, and minor characters. Not here.
Last year’s Best Actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence, plays Rosenfeld’s wife, a character smartly introduced to viewers after we witness Rosenfeld and Sydney fall in love. Now you’re probably thinking that Rosenfeld’s wife would logically be a battle-axe shrew who’s already on the verge of leaving him when we finally meet her. But alas, you would be wrong. Lawrence’s Rosalyn Rosenfeld is just smart enough to cause trouble, and as Mayor Polito is enthralled by her, she has to remain in the story for the sting to work. When Rosalyn falls for an Italian-American casino gangster, she almost derails the entire operation. Some of the funniest scenes to appear in any movie this year involve Lawrence’s lack of housekeeping and cooking skills. As you might expect, she plays Rosalyn to the hilt.
Bradley Cooper again plays the most annoying guy on the screen. His DiMaso is an excitable bundle of nerves and energy, who enjoys the con game just enough that we realize that he could have easily ended up on the other side of the law, had he not chosen a career in federal investigation. And while he’s a “bad guy,” Christian Bale is so solid in the lead role as Irving Rosenfeld that he anchors all the other characters and all the action. These characters are so
well-drawn that we feel like we’ve known them our entire lives. They practically jump off the screen with excitement.
Finally, I must acknowledge the brilliant sense of time and place. Again, much as in a Scorsese film, the music of the 1970’s is utilized to perfection. After seeing Jennifer Lawrence clean her house to Paul McCartney’s “Live And Let Die,” you’ll never be able to hear that song again without thinking of her. The large gas-guzzling cars, the multi-layered clothing, and the flowered wallpaper all contribute to the aura of New York in the ’70s. If I didn’t know better, I’d half expect a young John Travolta to come dancing out of the nearest nightclub.
“American Hustle” is as close to perfect as any gangster film I’ve ever seen. I instantly file it with “Goodfellas” and “The Godfather” as the best of the genre. It’s not as important as “Twelve Years A Slave,” and it’s not as tender and funny as “Nebraska,” but this one deserves to contend for Best Picture of 2013. I can’t imagine any other script winning Best Original Screenplay, and I believe Amy Adams will finally win her first Oscar. I hope they put her in the Best Lead Actress category, as her role is most assuredly not a supporting one. And even though she just won Best Actress last year, Jennifer Lawrence would have my vote as Best Supporting Actress. She’s a real scene-stealer here. “American Hustle” is one of those flicks where I wish I could turn invisible while the cleaning crew mops the floor, so I could sit there and watch it again all the way through.