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"AMERICAN HUSTLE"
(2013) (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: An eager but insecure FBI agent coerces two con artists into helping him bring down corrupt politicians.
PLOT:
It's 1978 and Irving Rosenfeld (CHRISTIAN BALE) and Sydney Prosser (AMY ADAMS) are two con artists who've found each other and are operating in New York City. Beyond running a legit dry cleaning business, Irving has brought Sydney into the world of selling forged and stolen art as well as promising far greater loans than their patsies are paying $5,000 for.

That makes them a lot of money, but it also draws the attention of insecure but eager FBI agent Richie DiMaso (BRADLEY COOPER) who nabs them in a sting operation. He wants to impress his supervisor, Stoddard Thorsen (LOUIS C.K.), and others higher up in the agency, Richie comes up with the idea of using the two to nab bigger white collar criminals.

On his radar is Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (JEREMY RENNER) who -- like his wife, Dolly (ELISABETH ROHM) -- is eager to acquire funds to rebuild Atlantic City. Using undercover FBI agent Paco Hernandez (MICHAEL PENA) posing as an Arab sheik wanting to invest his money, the scheme draws the attention not only of politicians eager to take a bribe, but also mobsters in control of gaming operations.

Among them is Pete Musane (JACK HUSTON) who takes a liking to Rosalyn (JENNIFER LAWRENCE), unaware that she's Irving's long-suffering wife and mother of his child. With her being jealous of her husband's relationship with Sydney -- who's also playing but possibly falling for Richie -- Rosalyn ends up being the wild card and potential fly in the ointment of the carefully orchestrated scheme.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
There are a number of notable things that are quite obvious while watching "American Hustle." For starters, it's proof positive that one can make not only a polished film about the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s and early '80s, but also a highly entertaining one. Of course, the film sets the mood early for that with an opening title card that reads "Some of this actually happened" rather than the usual "Based on" or "Inspired by" notice attached to fictionalized versions of real-life events.

Then there's the fact that writer/director David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook," "The Fighter") has made a film in the mode and spirit of some of fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese's best offerings, particularly "Goodfellas." In fact, he comes close to out-Scorsesing Scorsese himself, what with the directorial flourishes, multiple character voice-over narration, flashbacks, vintage and classic tunes filling the soundtrack and fascinating characters involved in less than morally upright behavior.

Speaking of the characters, the filmmaker has populated them with a stellar cast, many of the performers with whom he's worked before. That includes Christian Bale whose opening scene is worth the price of admission alone. With a big belly riding down over his pants (making one cringe at the thought of his body transformations between this, his muscled-up Batman parts and his emaciated role in "The Machinist") and working on one of the worst comb-overs in the history of follicly challenged men, he's prepping himself for some subterfuge that will later be revisited after the film rewinds to show us the events leading up to that point.

Also in that opening sequence is Bradley Cooper playing an eager but insecure FBI agent and ringleader of this con, and his and Bale's characters don't get along. Some once viewed the actor as just a visual boy toy of romantic comedies and the dude in the "Hangover" flicks, but he's really starting to evolve as a performer. As has their other costar in this early introductory moment, Amy Adams, who's gone vintage va-va-voom in her role as another con artist who often sports a "how far down does it go" plunging neckline.

Throw in the terrific Jeremy Renner, Michael Pena and Louis C.K., and you've got a fabulous cast. But the most notable performer and overall element in the film is Jennifer Lawrence. While she's drawn throngs to the multiplex via the "Hunger Games" movies and has already won an Oscar (for "Silver Linings Playbook") and another nomination (for "Winter's Bone"), this could be the film where people start to view her as a future candidate for best actress of all time.

While her performance here is of the supporting rather than lead variety, she steals every scene in which she appears, playing something of a ditzy, sexy and decidedly screwball character from cinema's past, yet one who can wield her claws when the need or opportunity calls for them. Lawrence throws herself into the part with true gusto and creates an indelible character that manages to perfectly complement those of her costars but also stand out as a tremendous bit of acting. Considering she's all of a whopping twenty-three years of age, it's remarkable that she's easily going to earn her third Oscar nomination and quite likely her second win at such an early stage of what one hopes will only be a long, varied and fruitful career for her.

Accordingly, she's the delicious icing on the tasty cake that Russell and co-writer Eric Singer have whipped up for our viewing enjoyment. The script is terrific (one of my favorite lines describes Lawrence's manipulative character as being the "Picasso of passive-aggressive karate"). Beyond the fun, often funny and imaginative dialogue, the filmmakers and cast have taken care to create interesting and engaging characters. While the same can obviously be said about those played by the likes of George Clooney and his pals in the super-slick remake of "Ocean's Eleven," the ones here feel far more human, warts and all.

And that's what makes "American Hustle" stand out from so many other films this year -- namely its focus on characters, performances and a well-written script. Yes, the material is decidedly R-rated (mainly regarding the language and sexual content). But the overall flick exudes the aura of talented people in love with the craft of making movies. That's compared to the increasingly callous and calculated attempts at separating the viewer from their money with the least amount of top caliber effort in the above the line categories (directing, writing, acting) that's become ever more prevalent in moviemaking today.

If you don't mind the language and related content, but do appreciate good filmmaking, you'll probably have no problem greatly enjoying "American Hustle." It's in my top five for 2013 and rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed December 2, 2013 / Posted December 20, 2013


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