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Movie Review: American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle is an acting clinic.  In a year bereft of signature performances, Hustle has at least five.  David O. Russell has an ability to draw out of actors  the kind of brilliant performances that win Oscars and define careers.  So why is it that I never actually love his movies as a whole?

Hustle is a very loose retelling of the 1970’s ABSCAM scandal in which several members of Congress were caught by the FBI taking bribes to smooth the building of casinos in Atlantic City.  Christian Bale and Amy Adams are a team of con artists who get stung themselves by an FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper.  His offer: bag four cons for him and his bosses and they can walk.  The cons get out of control, though, as the targets get bigger and bigger encompassing the Mayor of Camden, NJ, (Jeremy Renner), Congressmen, Senators and the mafia.

Though Bale and Adams are partners in crime and in bed, Bale has a wife and a child.  In a film where the all the principals have been nominated for Oscars and three have already won, Jennifer Lawrence steals this movie in maybe five scenes as Bale’s beyond-description sexy psycho wife.  She’s so good it’s frightening.  In my profile of Angelina Jolie, I said there were no actresses that would pull me into a theater on project attachment alone, but that Lawrence was getting close.  She’s there.  I’ll see whatever she’s in.

Hers is not the only amazing performance though.  Can Amy Adams please have her Oscar now?  As Bale’s partner, Adams plays an insecure chameleon of a woman, adapting to any situation to survive.  She changes characters and accents sometimes multiple times in a scene seamlessly and despite trying desperately to project a fearless persona, makes her character extremely vulnerable and frightened to an almost child-like level.  Adams and Lawrence have one big scene where they go toe-to-toe and you are just watching two of the best women in the world in an acting showcase.

That Christian Bale was Batman last year is inconceivable to me, because the guy he plays in this movie can barely walk a flight a stairs without popping a nitro pill for his heart.  He’s fat, schlubby and has the most elaborately composed comb-over in cinematic history.  How many times can he drastically change his body weight for film roles?  I’m a little worried for his health, but the commitment he brings to the table permeates his work.  He’s the core of the film and he turns in a performance every bit as good as the one  that won him a statuette in The Fighter.

To say that Bradley Cooper is a step below the other three leads seems like a knock, but it’s just that he’s playing with giants and he’s just a really tall guy (metaphor getting away from me there).  Cooper’s FBI agent sees glory in ABSCAM and will not be denied in running the operation right through his supervisor (Louis CK).  I’m not sure why American Hustle is touted as a comedy, because it’s not as funny a movie as I think it wanted to be.  To me, it’s an overlong character showpiece that doesn’t quite gel as an overall story.  Despite the raves I’ve given the principals, I have really no desire to ever see it again, but I would watch every scene between Cooper and CK a hundred times just to watch CK try to tell his ice fishing story.

It’s easy to see why there’s so much hype surrounding this film.  Russell puts together a fantastic ensemble and places you firmly in the look and feel of the 1970’s.  To me, though, these amazing performances exist in a vacuum because the overall story never really coheses into something that hammers all of it home.  Do not miss the chance, though, to see some of the best performers in film, turn in quite possibly the four best performances of the year.
8.5/10 (on acting alone, phenomenal).