David O. Russell does the hustle                                                           

by Bill Wine
Posted 10/1/20

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Russell landed his third Best Director Oscar nomination in …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

David O. Russell does the hustle                                                           

Posted

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Russell landed his third Best Director Oscar nomination in a row with the puckish 2013 period piece,American Hustle,” which garnered 10 nominations and reunited him with the stars of his previous two triumphs, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter.”

Bradley Cooper (Oscar-nominated for “Playbook”), Jennifer Lawrence (an Oscar winner for “Playbook”), Christian Bale (an Oscar winner for “Fighter”), Amy Adams (Oscar-nominated for “Fighter”), and even cameoing Robert De Niro (Oscar-nominated for “Playbook”) are all back hustling for Russell, and their participation buoys the material.

All four of his principals garnered Oscar nominations, Lawrence and Bale as leads and Cooper and Lawrence in support.

Set in New Jersey in 1978, “American Hustle” is loosely based on a true story.  A con artist (Bale) with both a neglected wife (Lawrence) and a fetching partner in crime (Adams) is caught and thus forced to work with an FBI agent (Cooper) to bring down a few con men, mobsters, and politicians, including the mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner), who hopes to rebuild Atlantic City. 

But how?  Just who’s conning whom?  And who if anybody isn’t?

If the narrative sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because this is a fictitious take on the infamous entrapment convention known as Abscam, a federal investigation into political corruption that brought about the conviction of a U.S. Senator and five congressmen.

As usual, director Russell lets the plot take a back seat to the array of colorful characters and problematic relationships, which is why canny casting is so crucial, why the David O. Russell Ready for Prime Time Repertory is so helpful, and why the movie can open with a title card that reads: “Some of this actually happened.”  Loosely based, indeed.

Originally titled American Bullbleep (and I don’t mean “bleep”), the screenplay by Eric Warren Singer and Russell bathes in the excesses of the era – the clothes, the hair, the shades, the dances.

But it’s the characters you’ll remember and groove on, as they used to say:  Bale’s motormouth, Lawrence’s dynamo, Adams’ seductress, Cooper’s puppet master – a crew of love-me-or-hate-me-but-don’t-ignore-me live-action cartoons.

Russell employs multiple voiceovers to accommodate a number of perspectives, and he gives his principal cast a bit too much rope, which is why none of them matches the naturalness or impact of his or her last Russell-guided performance.

Still, working at this heady level of screen presence and comedic charisma, this everyone’s-a-hustler six pack is fun to watch whether you’re believing them or not.

Which, come to think of it, fits the theme of the film itself like a tight T-shirt.

Character-driven storyteller Russell gives his film a manic, farcical energy that keeps it at arm’s length from realism, but that engrosses to a surprising degree, perhaps because it’s the kind of nostalgic historical exercise that can’t help but comment on contemporary values.

And what unites the characters and runs through the film like a tsunami is the level of unbridled greed.  Whatever costume each wears, whatever surface agenda each articulates, whatever lie each tells, just below the surface looms the big G.

American Hustle” is an entertaining black comedy in which David O. Russells up his overachieving alumni and they deliver.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment