American Hustle

It’s not as wry as Nebraska, nor as touching as Her, nor as sentimental as The Book Thief, but American Hustle is by far the most entertaining movie of 2013. It’s big and brash, goofy and glittery, the script is flawless, the performances are mesmerizing, the pace is white-knuckle and oh, did I mention it’s about our favorite movie heroes – our loveable, greedy, devil-may-care con artists.

These American hustlers aren’t solitary loners like boring Bernie Madoffs, or violent Godfathers, or drug addict low-lifes like the stock scammers in Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street. The characters in American Hustle are all cockeyed optimists, who like to dress up, have sex with only a few people in a week, eschew violence, are loyal to their friends, and have a very big thing about their hair. Corruption isn’t something they think about, it’s just something they do on auto-pilot. Their crimes are meticulously organized and cleverly designed—quite impressive really — but even they are shocked when their plans turn out to be wilder than they ever imagined – and make history, too.

Of course, no one ever worries about what harm they are doing to their victims. These heroes wouldn’t know how to spell karma, much less believe in it. They know that a sucker is born every minute and if anyone is stupid enough to trust something that looks too good to be true, then they deserve to be whacked down a few pegs on the ladder of life. There’s no guarantee life is going to be fair. Or legitimate.

Irving Rosenfeld is a satisfied guy. He owns a profitable string of dry cleaning shops, has a safe full of non-taxable cash, he sells fake art to anybody obnoxious enough to believe him, and he cons desperate people out of lots of money with his get-rich/get a big loan schemes. He has a sexy if crazy wife (Jennifer Lawrence at her most outrageous) named Rosalyn, and if he doesn’t love her too much anymore, he adores her son whom he has adopted. And okay, so he has the worst comb-over in history and a gut like a sack of potatoes. (Christian Bale gained 40 pounds for the role. Body transformations are important to this actor, it seems – he lost 63 pounds for his role in The Machinist, and 55 pounds for Rescue Dawn and then 30 pounds for his previous film with director David O. Russell, The Fighter. God help the actor’s health, but he sure does look his parts.) Even so, Irving sees no reason to change anything about what he’s doing in life.

Until he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams at her most alluring) at a party and they click over Duke Ellington. With Sydney, Irving has met not only his soul mate but his match—she’s just as avaricious and guilt-free as he is and she’s much better-looking – in fact, she’s a knock-out, with her fake English accent and chest-baring tops.

They make mad passionate love amongst the swirling dry cleaner bags and they’re inseparable from that time on. Their imposter art goes to richer clients, thanks to Sydney’s “English” connections and the suckers are so distracted by Sydney’s chest that they don’t realize they’ve been had until it’s too late. And while Irving won’t leave his wife for Sydney yet, he keeps promising that he will. It’s all hunky-dory until the day The Law walks in. FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Sydney red-handed and throws her in the pokey. Oooops. Is this the end of Paradise?

Never fear – it’s just the beginning.

While poor Sydney is languishing in jail, Agent DiMaso makes Irving an offer he can’t refuse – if Irving will help the FBI perform stings to catch bigger bad guys, he’ll arrange a commuted sentence for Sydney. DeMaso an eager over-achiever, deluded by his ego and dreams of FBI fame, and distracted by Sydney’s torso, completely forgets that a sucker is born every minute. And for some reason everyone forgets that Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, is the jealous type, and even if Irving does get himself killed by hanging around with that fake English hussy, by golly, Rosalyn is not going to be disrespected!

But before agent DiMaso gets to be reminded that sting operations can bite everyone involved, and refusing to take the advice of his by-the-book boss (comic Louis C.K.), he has convinced his glory-seeking supervisors to fund a huge, FBI operation. An operation so big that it involves as many as 50 other agents, including a Mexican-born agent (Michael Pena) who does look Arabic when he puts on a keffiyeh and just happens to speak Arabic, thank his lucky stars, as it turns out, because the venal mobster they almost catch, played with threatening glee by Robert DeNiro, tests the stranger with his pidgin Arabic.

The story goes that the Arab prince wants to invest his millions in Atlantic City, bringing much needed employment to the impoverished region. Popular Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Remmer) is only too happy to set the sheik up in business. It’s not really his fault that the sheik claims he wants to become an American citizen—and to do so he will have to bribe a lot of American politicians, who seem to forget the number one rule of politics – don’t accept bribes in hotel rooms from people you don’t know. Ooops, 19 of them go off in handcuffs in the real-life Abscam venture the movie was based on.

David O. Russell has made a hilarious film about American corruption—let’s face it, Abscam was a lot more fun than corporate overruns in Iraq. He gave rein to his coterie of talented actors—they had a blast and their performances show it. The movie positively vibrates with energy. More specifically, Russell created two powerful parts for women—both Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence have already won awards from the country’s film critics and both are surely in the wings for Oscar time. They deserve every kudo they’re going to get.

Don’t wait for this one to come out on video. See American Hustle where it deserves to be seen – on the big screen where it can show off all its Abscam-sized vitality.

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