Tuesday, January 21, 2014

American Hustle

David O. Russell’s American Hustle was my choice for this week’s Sunday matinee. This great film starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence is loosely based on the late 1970s Abscam scandal. The film’s opening title offers a tongue-in-cheek caveat emptor of sorts to moviegoers stating “Some of this actually happened.” The film focuses on Iriving Rosenfeld (Bale), a Bronx boy who made good and now owns a glass-installation business that used to belong to his dad and a chain of dry cleaners, in addition to running a couple of sketchy side businesses including selling forged artwork and a relatively lucrative loan scam. Life changes for Irving though when he meets the young and beautiful Sydney Prosser (Adams), a small town girl with big dreams.

Despite a wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), and adoptive son at home, Irving falls in love with Sydney and does the craziest thing he’s ever done with a woman – he’s honest with her – asking her to join him in his get rich schemes. Initially heartbroken when he thinks she’s turned him down, Sydney not only joins him but also invents a British alter ego, Lady Edith, a supposed British royal with banking connections that helps to pull the wool over the eyes of countless desperate men that turn to Irving for a loan. It's bigger and better from there on as the money starts rolling in and Irving even creates a fake company named “London Investors” (based on Sydney’s bogus London connections). All plans go awry though when Lady Edith is arrested in a sting and held for three days by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) for her part in a loan scam. DiMaso coerces Irving’s help by promising his and Sydney’s freedom if Irving can bring in four additional busts.

While she's under detention, DiMaso’s taunts to Sydney that Irving doesn’t really care about her sting and cause her to distance herself personally from Irving, telling him that she’s going to play DiMaso and use him if she needs to. At first the planned marks are small, including a potential bust of the likable Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) who is looking to revitalize his state by rebuilding Atlantic City and gambling in order to create jobs; but using a fake Arab sheik offering millions in exchange for U.S. citizenship, they set a trap for Polito and manage to catch not only him in their nets but also a number of dirty politicians including Congressmen and Senators.

Irving is torn by his double-crossing role as his ties of friendship grow with Polito but he’s truly scared when DiMaso all of a sudden sets his sights on the Mafia. The stakes are high for all of them and as the danger builds the volatile and wacky Rosalyn just might do them all in. While the over-eager and frenetic DiMaso thinks he’s got the goods, it will be up to Irving to pull the biggest scam of his life if he wants to make it out of this mess alive.

I loved this movie! What an extravaganza of talent, storytelling, and fabulous 70s music. This wacky and hard to categorize film offers drama, action, and plenty of comedy (thanks in large part to Jennifer Lawrence’s zany performance), but surprisingly it also has tons of heart (and romance too!). The larger than life characters in this tale make it hard to put your finger on just who the bad guys are since sometimes the bad are good and the good are bad. At its heart, its a story about reinventing yourself and second chances; an American ideal that defines who we are as a nation. Despite the bad hair and even worst fashions it offers a nostalgic trip down memory lane that might remind you of the good old days.

This character-driven tale delivers thanks to its standout cast. Each one shines in their own right and help make what could just be an everyday grifter flick into a true American classic. Bale is out of this world! It goes far beyond his physical transformation, though that’s pretty incredible including big paunch and comb-over. Bale’s portrayal of Irving could’ve been a caricature of your typical con artist, but he’s given Irving so much pathos and heart; at times funny, sad and poignant. Irving is flawed (he’s definitely not the most moral guy) but while he’s got no problem scamming people out of good money, he’s still torn between his true love for Sydney and his duty to his crazy wife, as well as torn by his need to betray a new friend; each weighing heavily on his heart. It’s not all black or white with Irving; there’s tons of gray.

The rest of the cast was equal to the task. Amy Adams blew my mind. For the longest, I guess since Enchanted (duh), she’s been Giselle in my mind, and she’s sooo not that in this film. Adams made Sydney sexy, bold and irresistible, while somehow still conveying an innocent vulnerability; a simple need to be loved. Cooper as DiMaso was beyond intense as an ambitious man a little over his head. Jennifer Lawrence was once again spot on in her screwy performance as Rosalyn, who was at different times happy, sad, angry, scared and sexy – sometimes all in the span of a couple minutes; a ticking time bomb that you can’t control, just contain. Oh, and lest I forget, there’s a brief but nonetheless scene-stealing performance by none other than Robert DeNiro as a Mafia bigwig from Florida.

The brilliance of this film is that it makes us care; care about a pair of two bit shysters and their chance at a happily ever after. When Irving clutched at his chest from a heart scare, I gasped; when he was knocked down and kicked, I wanted to protect him; and when he heartbrokenly tears up pining for Sydney, I rooted for their reconciliation. Each became a real albeit fallible person (weak, greedy, selfish); but then aren’t we all one or more of those things at different times in our lives? Indefensible or not, you can’t help but be charmed by this madcap group of wannabes that show so much heart.

As I mentioned before, the music was amazing. Every song choice seemed perfect for the scene. The film features classic rock songs from such greats as Elton John, America and Chicago; some disco from The Bee Gees and Donna Summer; and even some jazz classics from Duke Ellington. Oh and my favorite from the movie, “10538 Overture” from ELO that you might have heard in some of the film’s marketing. The soundtrack and the songs are integral to the movie and its tone, and some are directly incorporated into the storyline; like a great scene with Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn singing “Live and Let Die” while she’s cleaning her house or a really sweet and friendship-making moment between Irving and Carmine as they sing “Delilah” by Tom Jones.

As for the fact vs. fiction in the film, there really was an Irving Rosenfeld though his real name was Mel Weinberg. He was a career swindler crucial to the FBI’s Abscam operation and was a star witness during the trials. Amy Adams character was based on Weinberg’s real mistress Evelyn Knight, whom unlike the film really was British and was not a full partner in all his scam. Jeremy Renner’s character of Mayor Carmine Polito was based on real-life Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who died earlier this year, and though he was a “man of the people” highly-regarded by his constituents, he supposedly wasn’t as clean-cut as the film portrays.

What else can I say, other than see this film! I have no doubt that whether it wins an Academy Award or not, American Hustle is destined to be an American classic that stands the test of time.