Monday, December 23, 2013

In Theaters: AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by David O. Russell.  Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell.  Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Paul Herman, Colleen Camp, Anthony Zerbe, Barry Primus, Said Taghmaoui.  (R, 138 mins)

In his "fictionalized" chronicle of the late 1970s ABSCAM scandal, director David O. Russell wears his love of Martin Scorsese on his sleeve, shooting much of the film in that same propulsive, electrifying style that's made GOODFELLAS one of the great American movies.  Imitating Scorsese is nothing new, but the trick is to not let the hero worship trump everything else.  Paul Thomas Anderson got that with BOOGIE NIGHTS and Russell accomplishes it here.  Working with screenwriter Eric Warren Singer (who wrote Tom Tykwer's underrated THE INTERNATIONAL), Russell reassembles most of the main actors from his last two films (2010's THE FIGHTER and 2012's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), changes the names of the principles involved in the scandal, and creates one of the most vividly compelling films of 2013:  it's suspenseful, hilarious, brilliantly-acted, filled with rich characters, bad fashions and horrible hair, and mostly succeeds in capturing the period, except for one major gaffe where a character mentions reading Wayne Dyer's The Power of Intention, which wasn't published until 2004.  Oops.

Sporting a gut and an unsightly combover, Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a small-timer who owns a dry-cleaning chain, mainly as a front for his con jobs, primarily in art forgery and the bilking of gullible investors.  His partner-in-crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who puts on a flawless British accent to pose as one Lady Edith Greensly, a supposed tangential member of the Royal Family.  The pair met at a party years earlier and bonded over a shared love of Duke Ellington, with a romance blossoming even though Irving is married to the unstable, needy Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and is a devoted father to their young son.  Irving and Sydney fall into the web of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who busts Sydney for embezzlement but offers both of them a way out if they agree to set up a sting involving Camden, NJ mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, looking a lot like Steve Lawrence), a politician fiercely devoted to the people of his city and one who understands that palms need to be greased and under-the-table deals need to be made and if his corruption is for the greater good, then so be it.  Along with a Hispanic FBI agent (Michael Pena) posing as a sheik, Richie, Irving, and "Lady Edith" try to get Polito to coordinate a business deal between some rich Arabs and an Atlantic City casino, which gets complicated when aging Florida mobster Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) wants in on the action and tells them that the Sheik has to be a US citizen for any casino deal to happen.  This leads to the increasingly edgy, reckless Richie and his bosses (Louis C.K., Alessandro Nivola) launching a larger operation to bust Tellegio, a top capo to Meyer Lansky, along with the bribing of several Congressmen under the guise of getting US citizenship for the Sheik.  And if that wasn't enough, Rosalyn is enraged about her husband's involvement with Sydney and starts seeing one of Tellegio's underlings (Jack Huston) and, as is the norm with the manipulative Rosalyn, starts talking way too much about the things she knows and even more about the things she doesn't

Russell's use of music, narration, and long tracking shots are pure Scorsese, and the editing team of Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, and Crispin Struthers do a spot-on imitation of the rhythms and momentum established by Scorsese and his regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker.  It doesn't have the continuity errors that plague even the undisputed Scorsese masterpieces (because he and Schoonmaker go for the takes that "feel" the best and he isn't overly concerned with continuity), but the film has the loose, improvisational feel of vintage Scorsese while also exhibiting the discipline and vision of the master filmmaker.  In lesser hands, this could've turned into a pale imitation, but Russell very credibly brings it to life with a cast that's at the top of their game.  Few of today's actors can disappear into a role like Bale (an Oscar-winner for THE FIGHTER), whose Irving has layers of humanity and a conscience beneath his dodgy, fast-talking exterior, and Cooper, who just a few years ago had "rom-com lightweight" written all over him, continues to show impressive range under the guidance of Russell, who directed him to an Oscar nomination in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  Adams (nominated for THE FIGHTER), Renner, and Lawrence (a winner for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) are expectedly top-notch, as is De Niro in his one scene (he's both a Russell vet and the very embodiment of Scorsese's films), but another standout is C.K. as Richie's exasperated, bottom-line-watching direct supervisor, who gets a running gag about not finishing an ice-fishing story (also keep an eye out for Cooper's dead-on impression of C.K., which feels like an ad-libbed moment and it works beautifully).  Though he doesn't go as far as to include Scorsese's favorite song, the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" (and he mercifully excludes Blondie's "Heart of Glass," which is a seemingly mandatory inclusion for any film set in the late 1970s), Russell's song selection is impeccable:  America's "A Horse With No Name," Chicago's "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" Steely Dan's "Dirty Work," Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," Tom Jones' "Delilah," ELO's "10538 Overture," and "Long Black Road," a new song from ELO leader Jeff Lynne, plus Lawrence shrieking Wings' "Live and Let Die" while cleaning the house in a blind rage. AMERICAN HUSTLE, which was conceived under the title AMERICAN BULLSHIT, is hypnotically, relentlessly fast-paced entertainment that hooks you in from the first grainy shot of the 1970s Columbia Pictures logo and never lets go.  One of 2013's very best films.

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