A film about corruption and searing social commentary about what we'll do to chase the American dream? Made by the guy who made of the best anti-war pictures of the last several years (Three Kings) and one of the best sports dramas since Miracle (The Fighter)? And it combines Christian Bale & Amy Adams from The Fighter and Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook? This has to be a sure-fire Oscar heavyweight! Man, director and co-writer David O'Russell is swinging for the fences here! He's going to make this next period piece his Goodfellas, and hell, if you're going to draw inspiration from any crime drama, that's the way to go! I'm going to see this tonight!
2+ hours later.........
Well, two out of three ain't bad.
American Hustle is a good movie. A damn good one. O'Russell nails the period of the 70's perfectly. The lavish clothes, the attitude that this gravy train of decadence will never end, the electric mix of 70's pop/rock tunes - he understands where a generation was after the promise of the 60's was shattered by Vietnam, Watergate and the assassinations of MLK, JFK and his brother, Bobby. From putting a man on the moon and demanding that the races be equal, to escaping into frivolous items and making more money, by any means necessary - people were disillusioned by politics and the status quo, and wanted to escape into their own fantasies to avoid facing the ugly realities that were right in front of them.
One could say that people during this time were conning themselves into this fantasy. No one knows the art of the con better than Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, again always throwing everything he has into a role, even gaining weight for the part) and his partner, Sydney Prosser (the sexy, vulnerable Amy Adams). Hell, they've been conning several people who are desperate for cash or more lavish shit: Irv with forged artwork and a terrible comb-over, Sydney with a terrific British accent and a fake identity as a banker from across the pond. The scam comes to an end when FBI agent Richie DeMasco (Bradley Cooper) busts the pair for fraud and offers them a chance to wipe the slate clean: help the feds nab four other con artists, or face jail time. The target is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey and a man who's desperate to raise money to bring back his city from hard times by any means. The plan is to catch him in the act of taking bribe money by setting him up with a generous banker from Saudi Arabia. Like any good scam, this one becomes bigger as the mob and other corrupt politios, including a U.S. Senator, are involved taking dirty money, and the entire operation threatens to unravel because of an irate, uncontrollable wife (Jennifer Lawrence).
If it sounds like I'm reciting a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70's, that's because that's what this film is loosely based on. Half a dozen public officials were caught taking bribes in the Garden State, and were nabbed by the feds during this time. O'Russell decides to play this like a comedy, in which the scam becomes much bigger and more complicated than any one of the players involved, and it is often hilarious to see these con artists and power-hungry federal agents try and make it out on top, mostly by trying to con the other. With Irv and Sydney trying to con Polito to save their skins and other players in the scandal, Sydney conning Irv by using DeMasco as a way to bet back at him, and Irv's irate, loose-cannon of a wife, Rosalyn (an explosive Jennifer Lawrence) threatening to blow the whole scam apart, this film focus more on process of the scam than the actual scam itself, and you lose track of who's playing who. Fortunately, the payoff is very rewarding on who comes out on top, and it'll require additional viewing just to make sense of how the scam within a scam screwed over key players in the film's nearly 2 1/2 hour run time.
Unfortunately, the problem with the last leg of the film is the payoff itself. Without giving too much away, let me say the following: What made films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, Wall Street, Fargo, No Country for Old Men,There Will Be Blood and The Departed classics is that those were films that weren't afraid to make bold statements about how corruption is as much a fabric of the American story as is freedom and whatnot. The Michael Corleone's, Henry Hill's, and Daniel Plainview's all make their wealth by greed, murder and hustling others in order to amass their own riches, but each experience their own downfall in the end: Michael offs his own brother and is wracked with guilt for his sins, eventually having those chickens come to roost with his daughter being killed right in front of him. Hill goes into the drug trade, gets hooked on blow, along with other women, and gets nabbed by the Feds. He eventually breaks the cardinal rule of getting pinched - "Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut," in exchange of avoiding life in prison. In the end, he ends up in the Witness Protection Program and becomes the very thing he fought against for most of his life: being a regular schmuck. Plainview doesn't lose his wealth, or die in the end, but he loses something greater: his soul. His limitless greed alienates him from the rest of society, including his own deaf son. All of these characters show their downfall to illustrate how greed and corruption fester and take root, leaving nothing but a society or an individual decaying from the inside. David O'Russell...well, you can guess what i'm going to say next.
Still, American Hustle is filled with top-notch and Award-worthy performances, particularity from Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, and a funny, intriguing script (also written by O'Russell) that even my own bitching about not quite living up to it's expectations, is still more than enough to say that this is a funny and emotionally-charged picture worth watching.
*** stars out of ****