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DVD Review: 'American Hustle'

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The Film:

In just a few short years, David O. Russell has gone from being a director that very few may have heard of from films like “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees” to being a pretty big name in the industry, earning back to back Oscar nominations for Best Director for 2010’s “The Fighter” and 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” Now he's made it an astounding three in a row with his latest project, a tale of corruption and con-artistry entitled “American Hustle,” bringing back the simple, yet elegant, style that got him noticed in the first place.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a professional con artist who deals in phony business deals, fake art, and dry-cleaning. At a party, he happens to meet Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and falls in love with her, eventually revealing exactly what he does for a living. Though he initially thinks he’s lost her by telling her about his profession, instead it turns out that she wants in on the operation. After carrying out several deals, they get busted by the feds, including Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who offers them a kind of “Get out of jail free” card by proposing that they help him nab other con artists. They accept the deal, but the operation quickly grows larger than expected when Richie sets his sights on a politician, Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is looking to rebuild Atlantic City.

“American Hustle” continues Russell’s streak of films that feature oddly structured narratives. “The Fighter,” which I still hold is a vastly overrated film, was odd in that its story was pretty much built entirely out of clichés. “Silver Linings Playbook” was strange in how the first half of the film was fantastic, focusing on the relationship between a man recently released from a mental hospital and a woman who has her own set of problems, while the second half felt like a completely different movie, focusing on a dance competition. This time around, Russell switches up his narrative convention yet again.

The first act is a little mixed up in itself, but in a fascinating way. The film begins by putting us right in the middle of the sting involving Mayor Polito, causing us to have to figure out what’s going on on a moment-to-moment basis. Eventually we do jump back to the beginning of the story, getting filled in on the con artists, them getting busted, and their agreeing to help the feds. Basically this act is the set-up for the major con that our players are going to try and pull off. It whets our appetite for things to come, knowing that if they’re going to pull this off, they’re going to need a lot of skill and a massive amount of luck.

Then we come to the second act, which is where things hit a bit of a slump. It’s not so bizarre as to feel like it belongs in another movie (a la the second half of “Silver Linings Playbook”), but it does feel like it puts the film on hold for far longer than it needs to. We’ve had the character introductions, the set-up, and the plan pretty much laid out before us, so what use it is to have the film go into hibernation while we wait for the operation to begin officially?

At the very least, this time is used to show us the difficulties Irving is having in trying to keep his two lives separate, one being with his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), the other being with his new lover and the whole operation they’re trying to set up with Richie. Other parts of this section are filled with Richie’s homelife, attending a party with the Mayor, and Rosalyn blowing up a microwave, none of which really helps the story move forward.

When it does start moving again, the execution and payoff are satisfactory. We have everyone in their proper place, with everyone trying to do what’s best for themselves. All that’s left is to see who’s going to come out on top. There’s a little con-artistry involved, of course, but nothing particularly mind-blowing. However, it is enough to put a smile across your face as you see all the pieces of the plan fall into place, especially when that plan ends up being something completely different than expected.

If we were just going by the narrative, then “American Hustle” wouldn’t be anything particularly special. It certainly wouldn’t have garnered as much attention as it already has, but when you factor in the outstanding ensemble, then you have something that truly warrants a recommendation. It’s rather strange how most of the awards attention has focused thus far on Lawrence, who’s decent in the limited amount of time she’s in the film, but the true standouts here are Bale and Adams.

Bale, just coming off of a great performance in the dreadful “Out of the Furnace,” delivers another knockout here as Irving, giving us a fascinating character who’s mysterious and unpredictable. Adams is likewise fantastic as a woman caught between two men, both of whom have other women in their lives, while trying to help pull off an important con. Credit must also be given to Cooper for his portrayal of Richie, the passionate agent (in more ways than one) with a grand vision, and Renner as the mayor trying to walk the fine line between right and wrong in the name of doing what’s best for New Jersey.

“American Hustle” is a good film that could have been great had it not gone into hibernation through its middle portion. However, thanks to one of the year’s best ensembles and Russell’s keen eye for direction it becomes an enjoyable romp that will have you guessing how it’ll all work out in the end. Russell had already proven himself a force to be reckoned with, but if he continues to keep up this level of quality, I don’t think it’ll be too long before he turns one of his Oscar nominations into a solid win.

Video/Audio:

"American Hustle" is presented in a 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen that is surprisingly good for a DVD. There's hardly a trace of blurriness to be found, leaving you with a picture that is decently sharp, which is helpful in appreciating all of the period detail that went into the film. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio is very soft, so some adjustments have to be made, but afterwords it sounds fantastic, with the dialogue and soundtrack coming through very clearly.

Special Features:

The Making of American Hustle: An excellent 16-minute behind the scenes look at the film, featuring interviews with Russell and the cast in which they discuss the story, setting, and the characters. Definitely worth watching.

Deleted & Extended Scenes: A large portion of scenes that didn't make the final cut, totaling about 22 minutes. There's not much that's particularly worth seeing here, least of all the two pointless dancing/lip-syncing scenes featuring Lawrence, but as usual it's interesting to see what was trimmed from the film.

Conclusion:

"American Hustle" boasts one of the very best ensembles of last year (it took home SAG's Best Ensemble award), which goes a long way towards making up for the second act lag. When you factor in the decent special features and the surprisingly good quality of the DVD itself, you have a release that is easily recommendable. It may not reach the heights of other con films, but it remains a very solid and enjoyable entry in the genre.

Score: 3.5/5

Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Kill Your Darlings, The Slumber Party Massacre, Inside Llewyn Davis, In Fear, Oldboy (2013), Cold Comes the Night, Gravity, Mr. Nobody, The Americans: Season One, Hellbenders, Rocky: Heavyweight Collection, Chicago: Diamond Edition, All is Lost, Austenland, How I Live Now, Night of the Demons, Witchboard, Dallas Buyers Club, The Fifth Estate, Captain Phillips, You're Next, A Single Shot, Insidious: Chapter 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Now playing in theaters: Pompeii, Labor Day, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Also be sure to check out my lists of the Best and Worst Films of 2013.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.

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