American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Ignoring the stringent regulations long placed on the heist picture, American Hustle is a relaxed and charming film that gets lost and loses focus in the best sort of way. Detailed, winning characterization is its primary motive for existing; like Bottle Rocket, Jackie Brown or a Dortmunder novel, it makes some polite gestures toward heady plotting but mostly allows itself to indulge in surrounding us with a time, a place, a group of people. It isn’t a detail-oriented crime thriller unless you think The Sting (which it significantly betters) is one too; it’s a substantive, breezy comedy that takes its time to introduce and warm us up to its characters and relies completely on their interactions for its humor and narrative.

The disclaimer Hustle uses at the outset — “Some of this actually happened” — means nothing in and of itself because you could make the precise same claim about any movie purportedly “based” on a “true story.” Besides being a decent joke, its real thrust is that American Hustle means not to duplicate real life but to intensify, enliven it — to make immersive and surprisingly reonant cinema from it. It’s a resounding success, but whatever its methodology the result is just so much damned fun. I mean, so much fun, the most engaging sort of audience-pleasing, fast-talking entertainment. Shapeless? Absolutely; one wishes more movies were so shapeless, favoring the winding ambiguity of vivid people over the machinations of genre.

That semi-true story is a loose riff on an infamous FBI corruption-related sting operation called Abscam; its take on American life in the late ’70s is even hazier and more Hollywood than that of Ben Affleck’s equally wondrous Argo, but that unabashed joy illustrates writer-director David O. Russell’s fascination with the great Frank Capra much more strongly than its predecessor in his oeuvre, the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook. As in Capra’s best work, the belief in a certain universal good-heartedness inevitably overwhelms the complicated, multifaceted but amusingly benign evil that invades and is less malicious than bumbling. The film places a couple of con artists in the unenviable position of being forced by a randy FBI agent, sort of an adult version of one of the more sycophantic Vigils in The Chocolate War, to entrap an earnest but kickback-friendly politician — a thinly veiled caricature of Angelo Errichetti. Somewhere in this grand mix, to the chagrin of many and the delight of others, is Jennifer Lawrence doing her Jennifer Lawrence thing. The live wire joy in her work here is matched well by the movie at large.

The interplay between the cons, the pols, the mob and the feds is complicated in a tangential, scattered fashion by Lawrence as the wife of one of the crooks (Christian Bale’s Irving, a lively but easily stressed out player under a hairpiece), yet she repeatedly threatens to run away with the film. However, the other four principal actors are all superb; Bale has never been better or more believable, Jeremy Renner offers both gravity and adorable naivete as the all too quickly seduced mayor of Camden, and even Bradley Cooper, not a typically luminous presence, is terrific, sensual and oddly melancholy as clueless professional G-man Richie DiMaso. Amy Adams, though, is — as so often — the soul of the picture.

Interviewed some time later, she would almost appear too emotional over the film and her role in it to discuss it at length, which may be mysterious for those who quickly garner that it doesn’t take itself especially seriously and run with the assumption that it’s therefore superficial. Watch Adams’ multiple-accented Sydney, however, and the complexity of her evolving relationship with the two men orbiting her — attempting valiantly to skirt Lawrence’s Mrs. Rosenfeld and keep a genuine passion with a hemming-hawing Irving alive, stringing the Pavlovian Fed around with carrots dangling like Nicole Kidman in Dogville — and it becomes clear that this jumble of a popcrafty heist narrative is quietly telling another story entirely. That’s evidenced in the beautiful first act, which with comic grit and a touch of Goodfellas describes the memory of a relationship’s auspicious start in all its labyrinthe, giddy conspiracies.

That covers only the key roles in a film with many unexpected nooks and crannies. It’s striking how many times the film manages to surprise and stop us in its tracks with even just its casting choices, and that’s just the easiest thing to point to when noting how American Hustle scores completely on holding all the cards — it’s great storytelling because it isn’t telegraphed or obvious. When Agent DiMaso seems to be placing Sydney under his spell, and/or vice versa, peaking with an attempted liaison in a Studio 54 bathroom, is it just a distraction? What of the complimentary science oven? What about the intricacies of Mayor Polito and his creepo mob ties, or his seemingly idyllic family life? Is one-upping the FBI simply a coping mechanism for the ugliness of cooperating with them? How much of everything that happens here is a function of a record and a bracelet that brought two people together at a party long ago? This sort of lurching, arrhythmic storytelling one-ups expectations at every turn, because like the scam that can’t be pulled off because people are unpredictable, it renders an escape into formula impossible — it’s too true to the people it creates, who are the creation and resolution of its story arcs.

In some ways, the best of ways, American Hustle is little more than a chronicle of people trying to zero in on better lives for themselves, which is what makes it so much stronger than a typical gangster picture — that, and the central couple is gradually revealed as an honest moral center in a movie universe that finds humor and zest in so much but never does so by taking shortcuts or cheap shots. It would be thoroughly delightful even if it didn’t so fervently evoke the feeling — if not the actuality — of its time period with such enthusiasm, music, intelligence, and even if it wasn’t frequently hilarious. It’s popcorn stuff in the classic Hollywood sense, but that doesn’t make it superficial — it just dresses up its devastating center with the right kind of dross. Watching it feels very nearly physically blissful.

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