Thursday, April 24, 2014

‘American Hustle’: A delectable con job

From page A11 | December 24, 2013 | Leave Comment

“American Hustle”

Four stars

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Elisabeth Röhm, Michael Peña, Robert De Niro

Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, sexual candor and brief violence

Deliciously warped characters brought to life by a stellar cast

By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic

Why can’t more movies be this exhilarating?

Wait, I know … we need bad movies to remind us just how much fun the good ones can be.

David O. Russell has matured into an intoxicating director: one who plans and executes his films with the joie de vivre of a master choreographer. His flawed characters radiate the barely concealed desperation of people clinging to their own emotional wreckage, forever seeking the means to their salvation: some elusive Next Best Thing.

And so it is with the folks at the heart of “American Hustle.” They likely aren’t worth redemption, at least not in the legal sense, but we can’t help admiring the moxie of these unrepentant criminals, larcenous chutzpah and all. And Russell imbues this film — every scene, every conversation, every frame — with the same exhilarating rush that these protagonists employ to con their marks into some very bad behavior.

“American Hustle” is loosely based on the real-world FBI Abscam sting that went down in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Russell modified original scripter Eric Singer’s essentially factual material in order to assemble a roster of fictionalized caricatures, no doubt feeling that an operation as wildly audacious as Abscam needed some equally colorful participants. And, so, the core details here remain accurate — the nature of the operation, the eventual convictions — but the players are, well, brazenly impudent social misfits. At best.

You may recall the moment of unreality while watching the opening scene of “The Fighter,” as we wondered — really? could it be? — if that nervous, strung out and dangerously underweight crack addict really was Christian Bale. You’ll experience a similar disconnect in this new film’s opening scene, as we watch an overweight sad sack haul his sagging belly to a mirror, there to craft his impossible hair into the worst comb-over ever necessitated by vanity.

Bale again? Yes, that’s his name in the credits, but … seriously?


Bale’s New Jersey-based Irving Rosenfeld has made a successful career of small-time cons involving forged paintings and bottom-feeding investment schemes offered to desperate people with nowhere else to turn. He has been careful to remain under the radar, keeping his operation modest, and staying well away from the more dangerous elements of organized crime.

We meet Irving in the honeymoon afterglow of his chance encounter with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who has built herself a fresh identity of seductive savoir faire and flirty fashion sense. She probably had been fishing for a sugar daddy; in Irving, she finds a partner who encourages her own grifting skills. They become an inseparable team.

We experience their meeting and larcenous courtship via flashbacks and voice-overs, their delectably sexy banter radiating with the up-tempo snap of smooth jazz riffs; indeed, everything about Russell’s directorial style feels orchestrated, including the period pop songs that impeccably dot the soundtrack, often adding ironic emphasis to the action at hand.

Irving and Sydney are perfect for each other: gaily, madly, hopeless in love, lust and larceny.

Except that — whoops! — Irving is married, of a sort, to the highly unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). They share a dilapidated little house in Long Island, and although Irving knows full well that this unsophisticated train wreck of a woman is very bad news, he genuinely loves — and even adopted — her young son. Plus, she’s a tiger in the sack.

This comes as something of a surprise to us; we expect a corresponding shock to Sydney, perhaps bitter tears and recriminations. But no, not quite; apparently Irving has been candid with her. She accepts but clearly doesn’t like the arrangement, and thus we get the first glimpse of this story’s core mantra: We tell ourselves the stories that get us through the day, and we believe what we want to believe. Life is a dance, often a lie.

Eventually, inevitably, Irving and Sydney run afoul of a low-level sting devised by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious climber who wants — very, very badly — to make a name for himself within the agency. And, with Irving and Sydney in his control, Richie smells opportunity. In exchange for dropped charges and their (eventual) freedom, Richie demands that Irving and Sydney set up an elaborate con designed to ensnare the corrupt government officials “known” to be snatching payola for various political favors.

First on Richie’s hit list: Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the passionate, volatile New Jersey mayor who rose from working-class roots and now wants to bring organized gambling to Atlantic City, as a means of reinvigorating the entire state.

The problem, of course, is that Polito proves to be little more than the tip of the iceberg. And Richie, his reach far exceeding his grasp, can’t resist the impulse to move ever farther up the food chain … much to the growing horror of Irving, who understands full well the dangers of getting involved with Mafia types such as Victor Tellegio (an uncredited Robert De Niro, at his scariest).

Bale is marvelous, managing the impressive trick of making us see the idealized Irving that is reflected in Sydney’s adoring eyes. Despite this man’s unpalatable chubbiness and fussy manner, he “cleans up” with the authoritative snap of (well, yes) a stage actor facing a waiting Broadway audience. The transformation is so complete that we fall under the spell of the performance itself: This is Irving, not Bale, and we share his frustration with Richie, his love-struck desire to please Sydney, and his utter bewilderment over how best to handle the unhinged Rosalyn.

Adams literally drips sex as Sydney, rarely seen in anything but a cleavage-baring gown cut down to her navel. I’m reminded of the similar come-hither power of Annette Bening in 1990’s “The Grifters,” particularly a moment when she walked directly toward the camera, her carnal gaze promising … well, one couldn’t even imagine. Adams’ Sydney is that seductively compelling, while at the same time conveying a strong sense that this is not a woman to cross.

Nor would one want to cross Rosalyn, although Irving repeatedly does so. It would appear that Lawrence’s Oscar-winning portrayal in “Silver Linings Playbook” was mere warm-up for her work here. Rosalyn is a tempestuous force of nature: a woman who takes genuine pride in her ignorance — even flaunts it — because she honestly believes that she can get anything if she yells loud enough, or pouts believably enough.

Cooper is hilarious as the similarly unhinged Richie: the sort of uncontrollable renegade who we desperately hope won’t be found on any legitimate enforcement agency payroll. Cooper displays the same manic intensity that brought him such attention in “Silver Linings Playbook,” once again portraying a guy who’s both funny and unsettling; we laugh at this guy, but rather nervously, because he’s no more controllable than Rosalyn.

Renner’s Carmine Polito is the pluperfect political animal, complete with the impossible, Liberace-meets-Tony Curtis hairdo that so typified the early 1980s. He radiates wounded sincerity, crying crocodile tears while cheerfully accepting “his due” when circumstances permit. At the same time, there’s no question of Carmine’s good intentions, or the earnestness of his family values.

The film’s bravura, rat-a-tat pacing comes courtesy of editors Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, who fine-tune Russell’s crisp dialogue for maximum comedic and/or jaw-dropping impact. Michael Wilkinson’s costume design is hilariously wonderful in its own right, whether reviving the ghastly 1980s leisure suits, barely draping a few yards of cloth over Adams’ little body, or shoving Lawrence into the sort of grotesque, breast-elevating gown that Rosalyn would consider “formal.”

Russell’s film is the second blast in this year’s trio of “heightened reality” takes on fact-based examples of People Behaving Badly, following spring’s “Pain & Gain” and a mere heartbeat in front of Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street.” This approach is, perhaps, the only cathartic way to do justice to horrific historical events; we’ve gotta laugh, because otherwise we’d cry and bemoan the fate of all humanity.

And with a talent such as Russell calling the tune, we’re guaranteed to enjoy the dance.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at Comment on this review at


Discussion | No comments

The Davis Enterprise does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy



4-H members get ready for Spring Show

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1 | Gallery

Will city move forward on public power review?

By Dave Ryan | From Page: A1

2 pursuits, 2 arrests keep Woodland officers busy

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

Obama to Russia: More sanctions are ‘teed up’

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2, 3 Comments

Youth sports in focus on radio program

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Rummage sale will benefit preschool

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Concert benefits South Korea exchange

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Conference puts focus on Arab studies

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Central Park Gardens to host Volunteer Orientation Day

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

Volkssporting Club plans North Davis walks

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Hotel/conference center info meeting set

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Davis honors ‘green’ citizens

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Water rate assistance bill advances

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Program explores STEM careers for girls

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5, 4 Comments

Embroiderers plan a hands-on project

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

MOMS Club plans open house

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

Cycle de Mayo benefits Center for Families

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A8

Author to read ‘The Cat Who Chose to Dream’

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A12



Things are turning sour

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B5

Ortiz is the right choice for Yolo

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Tom Meyer cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A6

The high cost of employment

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6, 1 Comment

High-five to Union Bank

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Broken sprinklers waste water

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Three more administrators?

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Neustadt has experience for the job

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Here’s a plan to save big on employee costs

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6, 3 Comments

Davis is fair, thoughtful

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6



DHS boys shuffle the deck to beat Cards

By Thomas Oide | From Page: B1 | Gallery

DHS/Franklin II is a close loss for Devil softballers

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

DHS tracksters sweep another DVC meet

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Another DVC blowout for DHS girls soccer

By Evan Ream | From Page: B1, 2 Comments | Gallery

Young reinvents his game to help Aggies improve on the diamond

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Baseball roundup: Giants slam Rockies in the 11th

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

UCD roundup: Aggies lose a softball game at Pacific

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3

Jahn jumps to Sacramento Republic FC

By Evan Ream | From Page: B8





Emerson, Da Vinci to present ‘Once Upon a Mattress’

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

Winters Plein Air Festival begins Friday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

Bach Soloists wrap up season on April 28

By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A11

Congressional art competition open to high school students

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11







Comics: Thursday, April 24, 2014

By Creator | From Page: B6