‘American Hustle’ review: Messy plot, memorable characters

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December 28, 2013 by Hope W.

The starry cast of American Hustle

The all-star cast of American Hustle: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence

When a movie spends its first three minutes on Christian Bale carefully arranging his sparse hair into a combover, with his shirt unbuttoned to show off a paunchy stomach, you know somehow that plot isn’t its biggest concern. American Hustle will leave you with a lasting impression of its starry cast of larger-than-life characters in flamboyant trappings of questionable ’70s style. Any efforts to recall the preposterous and muddled plot, though, may leave you with a sense of “Huh, what just happened?”

A fictional retelling of the Abscam scandal of the late ’70s/early ’80s, Christian Bale and Amy Adams play Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, a pair of brilliant con artists and lovers roped into a FBI sting operation by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) targeting corrupt politicians and powerbrokers — in particular, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Complicating things along the way is Irving’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who could bring down the operation with her carelessness.

Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfield), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) and Bradley Cooper (FBI agent Richie DiMaso) in American Hustle

Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) and Bradley Cooper (FBI agent Richie DiMaso) in American Hustle

The film is so ludicrous that you are hard-pressed to believe its claim at the start that “Some of this actually happened”. (A sheik is involved, and I’m still not sure why.) However, its sin lies more in a story too messily told to make any real sense of. The amplified backdrop of the ’70s helps/hinders too: the kaleidoscopic palette of the era, over-the-top hairstyles and revealing costumes that are characters in their own right — the ample boob that Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence flash distracts you into wondering half the time if they are a second away from an accidental nip-slip — makes it hard to take the movie seriously.

What you are left to focus on are its extravagant characters, so neurotic they almost seem to be parodies of themselves. Christian Bale — who, incredulously, is modelled after the real con artist Melvin Weinberg — is great as always, disappearing into his character with the aid of that ridiculous combover and potbelly. Bradley Cooper’s slightly maniacal agent recalls his performance in Silver Linings Playbook — causing you to wonder how on earth he qualified to be an FBI agent actually — and in one memorable scene, goes off the deep end on his boss (Louis C.K., who plays the straight man to Bradley Cooper’s wild one, thereby providing some of the best comic moments in the film).

Jeremy Renner is arguably the most balanced person in the film as the passionate mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito, whose efforts to improve his community make him the unwitting target of the operation. He is so generous in opening his heart to Bale’s Irving, and woefully naive about being set up, that it incurs Irving’s guilt in his role in the operation and our sympathies, and causes him to become the real tragic figure in the film. Unfortunately, by nature of such an ostentatious film, his magnanimous portrayal cannot help but be overshadowed by the theatrics of all the other characters.

Jeremy Renner as Mayor Carmine Polito and Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle

Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito) and Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld) in American Hustle

But the real stars of the film are its women. Amy Adams is gorgeous and magnetic as Irving’s partner, Sydney — though her English accent is uneven for someone who poses as a British aristocrat half the time as part of the con. Even when stripping down the layers of that confident facade to reveal a woman full of insecurities about her ability to be loved — seen from her jealousy of Rosalyn, and subsequent playing of both Irving and Richie in a manipulative love triangle — she is riveting in her beauty and vulnerability.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jennifer Lawrence’s character, who is so absurd and erratic with a penchant for screwing things up for her husband that in the hands of a less capable actress, she could have been extremely annoying. As it is, I found her comical. Witness the scene where Irving confronts Rosalyn about getting him in trouble with the mafia by blabbing about him possibly working for the feds — which ends with him thanking her for it (though it is unclear if he means it truly or sarcastically). She switches from upset and emotional to manipulative and self-righteous in that scene, that you are taken aback at her audaciousness, but you don’t question it. (How could you, when she has shown throughout the entire film that that is exactly who she is?) And like in Silver Linings Playbook, you ignore the age gap between Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, because you can barely tell it is there, and it doesn’t matter.

Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld) and Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) confront each other in a pivotal scene in American Hustle

Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld) and Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) confront each other in American Hustle

So yes, the film is funny, especially in its odd beats of humour. (The shot of Carmine’s numerous children on the stairwell — including a black kid, whom he adopted — overhearing the news that he is going to jail is unexpectedly amusing.) The characters are striking, and the best part of it. The costume and production design will probably win awards. But best film of the year, as some critics’ groups have proclaimed? Nope.

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