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Review: On being real and playing roles in ‘American Hustle’

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American Hustlethe star-studded new film from David O. Russell, the director with the newfound golden touch – is movie all about appearances. It looks like Boogie Nights and feels like Goodfellas (or at least tries really hard to). The film puts a lot into how its actors look on screen, and in turn, their characters do the same within the narrative. Everyone plays a role, in more ways than one.

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Throughout the film, there is a lot of talk amongst the characters about the difference between being “real” and “playing your part” – but the fun thing is you never really sure who is being that so-called “real” and who is just playing “a part.” Everyone is trying to stay one step ahead of the game (and each other). Same goes for the film – the filmmakers are trying to stay one or two steps ahead of the audience, so you have a hell of a time trying to figure everybody and their plan out.

Sure, the plot is twisty and the film is tremendous fun, but in the end, American Hustle is all about the superstar cast, all of which is in top form (all the award season love can surely attest to that).

Headlining the all-star ensemble is Christian Bale, who plays an unapologetically disheveled con-man with tinted glasses, an elaborate comb-over, and a bulging potbelly, which he makes no attempt to hide – a slightly less crass Tony Clifton, if you will. The film opens as he attempts to wrangle in his mess of hair (what is left of it anyway) into a meticulously rehearsed and deceptive hairstyle. This man is a con-artist through and through, even down to his hair. He is always playing a role and looking for a score.

Amy Adams, who wears more revealing outfits than a Victoria’s Secret model, absolutely owns the first half of the movie. As a fiery seductress with a fake British accent, she wiggles her way into the hearts and minds of everyone, the audience included. Always looking out for herself and worried about the next step, she too is playing a role.

The movie starts off a little slow as there is a good bit of exposition and character background that we have get through first. It gets an injection of life when Bradley Cooper’s overzealous federal agent is introduced, and again later, when a blonde, loudmouth vixen played by Jennifer Lawrence infuses herself into the story as well. Cooper is looking for respect and fame at work, while Lawrence is looking for love in all the wrong places.

Both Adams and Lawrence are magnetic, and ultimately, the more emotional, showier stars of the film, but Bale and Cooper bring a tremendous amount of depth to their duplicitous men. As the career criminal gets a taste of the honorable side of life and the federal agent enjoys his brief walk on the wild side, it is fascinating to watch both get in over their respective heads and then try to wiggle their way out of it.

Robert De Niro brings a tremendous amount of much-needed levity to his brief role as an aging mob boss. Comedian Louis CK is perfect as Cooper’s sad sack, put-upon boss. Unfortunately, Jeremy Renner once again draws the short straw in an ensemble film (as he did in The Avengers). Renner is solid, as usual, but is just not given much to do.

Just about everyone who has seen the movie (myself included) name-drops Scorsese and/or Goodfellas in comparison with American Hustle, and with good cause. The film is dripping with a Scorsese influence – filled with frenetic energy, sharp edits, multiple narrators, a classic rock music soundtrack, elaborate period set pieces, and even a De Niro appearance – but that is not to say it is not its own entity. Russell’s style is little less showy than Scorsese and his humor more over-the-top, but it works.

The only thing that seemed a little off at times was the soundtrack. Appropriately stocked with classic hits from the ‘70s like Elton John, The Bee Gees, ELO, Donna Summer, and much more, it is not the music itself, but how it is used. Music is an extremely integral part of a film – almost a character in and of itself – and if used properly can propel a scene or a moment into something special. In American Hustle, sometimes they nail it (Lawrence singing “Live and Let Die” while she cleans the house or the characters strutting to Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work”), but other times it just does not sync up well and feels like background noise. It is a tricky thing to do, and this is admittedly, a nitpicky observance. This goes back to the comparison with Scorsese, who uses music so extremely well, it just hard to find a director could do it as good.

Many twisty films like American Hustle simply try too hard and eventually fall under their own hubris and/or ambition. Thankfully, Hustle is never tries to be too clever for its own good. In fact, it is very sneaky about it. Most of the time, the audience is never even aware that it is being conned. And isn’t that the essence of a good conman? Just sit back, play your role, and enjoy the fun.

* * * * out of 5 stars

American Hustle expands nationally on Friday, December 20 and opens locally at The Theatres at Canal Place, all three AMC Palaces (Elmwood, Clearview, and Westbank), Kenner’s new Grand 14-Esplanade theater.

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