Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle

As wonderful as it is to watch, American Hustle was assuredly a difficult film to make. It has a labyrinthine plot, replete with double crosses, false identities, fake accents, and cons nested inside other cons. Its structure is ungainly, with cascading flashbacks, multiple voiceovers, and repeated shifts in point of view. And its based-in-truth narrative, about the FBI's ABSCAM sting in the 1970s, is laden with insider minutiae, ranging from the mechanics of organized crime to the breadth of political corruption to the egotism of law enforcement. You would think, given the need to balance all of these plates spinning on screen, that American Hustle would require a workmanlike and disciplined director, someone capable of streamlining the screenplay's disparate elements and synthesizing its busy plot. Instead, it got David O. Russell.

As a filmmaker, Russell possesses many qualities, but discipline is not one of them. Yet American Hustle, which pops off the screen like a brightly colored carnival ride, proves that chaos can be a virtue rather than a vice, and that a movie can transcend its surface limitations through sheer force of personality. It is messy, frenetic, and occasionally just absurd. But it is also consistently delightful, and it seems so happy just to exist, with a glimmer of genuine emotion mingling with its self-evident joy. It's a movie made by a guy who loves movies, and it shows.

Russell also loves actors, and American Hustle features one of the most ferociously talented ensembles in recent memory. An unrecognizable Christian Bale stars as Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con artist with a beer belly, a "rather elaborate" comb-over, and a gift for scamming get-rich-quick investors. He's married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a restless housewife with lots of confidence and little patience, but he falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a down-on-her-luck former stripper desperate to make ends meet. Together, Irving and Sydney begin hooking bigger fish, with Sydney adopting the persona of Lady Edith Greensly (complete with faux British accent), an alias that helps lure in more high-profile targets. This eventually draws the attention of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who flips Irving and recruits him to deceive Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), New Jersey's mayor, by pretending to serve as the courier for a wealthy Arab sheikh. While Richie operates under the scowling supervision of one superior (Louis C.K., aggrieved and hilarious) and the fame-chasing opportunism of another (Alessandro Nivola), Irving's maneuvers draw him closer to the actual Mafia, including a fearsome boss played by an actor whose identity I dare not reveal.

Follow all of that? Neither did I. But American Hustle is less about unraveling the myriad strands of its deftly woven screenplay (co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer) than it is about absorbing the blistering energy that's released when its rambunctious characters collide with one another on screen. Russell is more of a people person than a storyteller, and while that approach can occasionally sideline and obfuscate the movie's plot, it results in a welcome and rare attention to character, giving real shading to familiar archetypes. (Recall the sensitive exploration of mental illness in Silver Linings Playbook.) Richie, for example, appears at first glance to be a typical square-jawed lawman, but his simmering flirtations with Edith—as well as a touching conversation with his mother—reveal him to be desperate and lonely, with Cooper brilliantly using false bravado to mask his insecurities. Sydney, meanwhile, is less a damsel in distress than a tentative accomplice, torn between her loyalty to Irving and her ever-present desire for stability, and Adams beautifully emphasizes her grace and quick wit while also hinting at the fear that constantly gnaws at her. And while Rosalyn could have easily come off as a shrill wet blanket, Lawrence turns her into an absolute firecracker, bursting with anarchic delirium, at least until a heartbreaking moment late in the film in which she shuts down the chaos and communicates entirely with her quavering eyes. All of these outstanding performances confirm that Russell is incredibly generous to his actors, affording them wide latitude to turn seemingly trivial moments into character-defining scenes; it's no accident that his absurdly good cast pays him back several times over. (Not coincidentally, not since Warren Beatty's Reds in 1981 had a movie received Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories; Russell's now done it in back-to-back years.)

He also knows a star when he has one. Christian Bale received a well-deserved Oscar for his work in Russell's The Fighter, but it's virtually impossible to reconcile his lean, jumpy crack addict from that film with the paunchy, exasperated con artist we see here. The physical transformation is typically astounding, the accent flawless as always (how many people know that Bale is actually Welsh?), but what's truly remarkable is the decency. Irving is a two-bit criminal, sure, but he doesn't want to hurt anyone. He's really a good guy, which is why the movie's most stealthily poignant subplots involve his relationships with others: his wistful romance with Sydney, the dream girl who both admires and grows skeptical of him; his foundering marriage with Rosalyn, the beauty he loves but cannot endure; even his burgeoning friendship with Carmine, the mark of the very con he's perpetrating. Irving is both at the top of his game and haplessly out of his depth, and Bale's committed, doleful portrayal lends him a quiet gravitas that borders on heroism.

He also exemplifies one of American Hustle's most surprising traits: heart. This movie is, first and foremost, a comedic caper, with hairpin turns, farcical misunderstandings, and hysterical reveals. (In particular, Richie's dazed response when he learns Edith's true identity is one for the ages.) But Russell is too nimble to restrict himself to a single genre, and to applaud this movie for its comic brilliance is to risk dismissing its genuine tenderness. Russell is an entertainer, and he does his damnedest to make you laugh. He succeeds, but the real success of American Hustle is that it also makes you happy.





Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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