Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: "American Hustle" is a Great Looking Yet Empty Con

Left to right: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner,
Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence

Originally published at CinemaBeach.

The theme of director David O. Russell’s latest film American Hustle can be summed up in the hilariously awful comb-over sported by Christian Bale. The entire film isn’t about revealing vulnerability, but projecting confidence no matter what. As conman Irving Rosenfield, Bale embodies these ethics simply by not caring about his lunatic wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and selling fake art with his new girlfriend (Amy Adams). From the clothing to the emotions, it is a world of trickery on every level that looks good, but the core can be a little disturbing.

The most noticeable thing about Russell’s story, based on the events of Abscam in the late 70’s, is how little he seems to care about the operation. It seems more obsessed with the people behind it. Besides Rosenfield’s love triangle and desire to help F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to avoid a jail sentence, it seems to be one long con exploring emotion. Affairs become deceptive tools and the truth becomes harder to perceive. Even then, with everyone performing their own con, things are never clear, and that only makes the absurdity more endearing.

One of the film’s strengths is in its lead. With Bale putting on considerable weight, he manages to unlock something unique. Rosenfield may be a flawed individual, but through a cocky, witty portrayal, Bale is able to create one of the most magnetic and funny performances in his career. He commands the screen with his delusional sense of grandeur. He embodies the emotional satisfaction that comes with unraveling his false projection so perfectly.

These themes run deep in the script by Russell and Eric Singer. Mixing drama with witty exchanges about forged art and microwaves, it questions the durability of trickery. Even while looking slick and clean, the script rides the edge on ruining these characters lives without ever losing their humanity. Like the con itself, some moves are sleight but the confident cast’s use of overcompensation works as absurd. They are unbelievable in a realistic way, which only makes their cons feel somewhat of a miracle.

From the retro design of studio logos, it feels like the film is too 70’s in its production. It strikes an era through stylish suits with bright colors and dresses with risqué designs. The hairdos hang high off of their heads in ways that give the Coen Brothers a run for their money. There are even small moments that feel naively placed to create humor from the dated technology and global understandings. It gets the tone and atmosphere so right that it is almost cliché. Even the soundtrack, featuring Electric Light Orchestra and Elton John, feel at times on the nose. This is only a problem if you don’t like the 70’s. Otherwise, it is a gorgeous blast of nostalgia.

While the Abscam events are continually brought up, they feel secondary. It seems vague enough that it doesn’t feel like a significant thing to base a film around. Even if the resolution is accurate to reality, the opening title card suggesting that “Most of these events happened” is trying to hide a lack of understanding or care. Even with Rosenfield providing his version of a happy ending in voice over, it doesn’t feel like Abscam mattered to him. This was a story more obsessed with conning the other man more than infiltrating Abscam. Much like the images that these characters project this may have been an unintentional way to show the plot’s flaws with a shiny, confident shell. It is still engaging, but this is more of a study of the self-image than historical events.

As long as American Hustle is viewed not as a con film, it is highly enjoyable. With one of Bale’s best performances and a great cast, Russell has crafted another cast of characters that are endearing no matter what their environment is. This time, the shiny clothes and beautiful women serve as the motivation for lapses in judgment. They may be dysfunctional, but each moment is treated with care and humor. It may not feel as concrete in execution as The Fighter, but its exploration of projected confidence is fascinating and the vision of the 70’s looks gorgeous. American Hustle feels like a film that is playing sleight of hand with the audience at its core, but it’s doing it well enough that it doesn’t matter.

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