Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: "American Hustle"

In one of his final reviews, the incomparable Roger Ebert declared a film “fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” I felt much the same way about “American Hustle,” which boasts an entire crowd of Academy Award-winning and -nominated thespians, one of Hollywood’s most lauded writer/directors, a buzzy historical subject, and a crushing identity crisis.

What the heck is this movie about? Ostensibly, it’s a fictionalized version of the Abscam scandal of 30-odd years ago that led to the conviction of a bunch of Congressmen and other government officials on corruption charges. But in the sprawling, unwieldy adaptation, it seems like merely an excuse for a bunch of actors to dress up in horrid ‘70s fashions and exchange frenetic volleys of dialogue that often make not a lick of sense.

Eric Singer’s screenplay exploring some little-known peculiarities of the imbroglio had languished around Hollywood for years, turning up on lists of the best non-produced scripts. Director David O. Russell did his own rewrite to intentionally turn the real-life characters into caricatures, and make the shenanigans even crazier than they actually were.

(Fittingly, Singer’s original title was “American Bullpucky,” though he used a different word.)

The cast is led by Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a brilliant but complex con man. Outwardly the role is showy, with Bale putting on weight to gain a big belly, and wearing an elaborate comb-over hairdo, tinted glasses and cheesy facial hair. But Irving lives mostly inside his own head, and sometimes has difficulty putting his schemes into action.

Bale never quite breaks through the wall between an actor’s creation and the audience, and Irving largely remains a sphinx to us.

Irving’s muse and partner in crime is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, who adopted the persona and lilt of a refined British woman so long ago, it’s taken over her identity. She cares deeply for Irving, for reasons that are unclear to her, and us. Adams gets her own makeover with a poodle perm and necklines that perpetually plunge down to her navel.

The third, and unsteadiest leg of the triad of leading characters is Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, who is the FBI agent who busts Sydney and Irving and forces them to become his operatives.

They entrap politicians (including a sharp Jeremy Renner as a New Jersey mayor) with promises of a massive casino financed by a mysterious Arab sheikh. Richie lets the power go to his head, and convinces himself he and Sydney are soul mates.

If you thought this was yet another story about a love triangle, then you’d be wrong, because it’s actually a quadrangle.

Jennifer Lawrence turns up as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, a walking electric ball of neuroses. Feeling abandoned by her husband’s criminal antics and his attentions for Sydney, Rosalyn inserts herself into the mix by sheer force of will, which proves troublesome when their business dealings wander into the purview of the mafia.

Narratively, Rosalyn doesn’t really serve much purpose in the story, other than to gum up the works and generate chaos. Lawrence is so crackling good, though, that the film goes into a torpor whenever she walks off-screen.

Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Richie’s put-upon boss and Michael Peña as a Mexican-American fed who gets tapped to portray the sheikh. Robert De Niro also makes an uncredited appearance in a familiar role.

The experience of seeing “American Hustle” is like being at a wild party where you don’t know anybody, and find yourself shoved into a corner watching the mayhem happening all around. You never really understand the whats and the whys of it all, and you stroll out the door unchanged from how you were when you walked in, mostly trying to remember who sent the invitation and why you accepted it.

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