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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 2. American Hustle

Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Costume Design, Film Editing, Production Design

(L to R) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper in 'American Hustle'
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The appeal of American Hustle, like in all of writer/director David O. Russell’s films, is its characters, an effect that is instantaneous. The film opens with Christian Bale’s paunchy conman Irving Rosenfeld applying his ridiculous hairpiece to complete his bordering-on-grotesque comb-over, an image that serves as a central theme to the whole story – the overtly desperate though earnest attempts people make to conceal who they are so that they be or have something better. Hustle is a semi-accurate depiction of a pair of grifters turned secret lovers in the late 70’s, comprised of Bale’s Rosenfeld and Amy Adams’ impassioned Sydney Prosser, who are conned into helping FBI agent Richie DiMaso, played by the evermore fierce Bradley Cooper, into exposing the criminal actions of crooked politicians, starting with Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito, played by the always dependable talent Jeremy Renner; in the middle of the mix is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s wife Rosalyn, self-aggrandizing and thoughtless enough to ruin Irving and bring down the whole ruse.

The four leads – Bale, Adams, Cooper, and Lawrence – serve their roles up hot and fresh and totally game for the sometimes dizzying spectacle that Hustle is (you can never decide which is more decadent, the hair or the clothes), and all are rewarded with due nominations in their own acting categories. But it is Russell’s cleverness that makes these people so enticing contrary to the character’s true-colors, making everyone that walks into frame some utterly intriguing study of duplicity. The ones who knowingly and willingly swindle and cheat others out of their money have the pure hearts and the good intentions – Bale’s conman Irving is a devoted father to his stepson and relents to stay with his wife Rosalyn and put up with her grossly benign subterfuge to do so – and the law-abiding do-gooders turn out to be the antagonists – Cooper’s agent DiMaso is disturbingly obsessive and completely lacking in reservation and self-control to obtain his self-righteous idea of justice and recognition. All elements of the film form together quite nicely, the danger of banality smoothed over with pepperings of humor, like the appearance of Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s rug-under-swept boss, and subtle cameos, with Robert De Niro playing ancient mobster Victor Tellegio. The bravura shown by Russell as well as his cast and crew (God bless, those hairstylists) demands validation, and AMPAS has given them that in spades, tying Gravity for the most nominations of the years in ten categories.

By now the battle for Best Picture has turned into a bout between Hustle and 12 Years a Slave, with Gravity as the dark-horse contender, with well engineered popularity sending a surge of interest (and most likely votes, too) in favor of Hustle. The big question is this: would it be just or unjust for Russell’s most accomplished tone-piece to win the top prize? Both. The situation before voters has come oh so many times before, with two equally great though completely different films going head to head – think Forrest Gump versus PulpFiction, or more recently The King’s Speech versus The Social Network – and the AMPAS voters never fail to side with the crowd-pleasing instant classic as opposed to the original and socially-relevant cinematic revelation, permeability always trumps zeitgeist. As such its fairly predictable that Hustle will win Best Picture, especially since it has so many nominations to its credit, and it is unquestionably worthy of it – but is it as deserving as 12 Years a Slave? Not in the slightest.