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American Hustle is David O. Russell’s newest movie, and stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. It is a movie about two con artists (Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser) who are forced by Detective Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help him catch other criminals in the act of bribery. The plot is actually a lot more complicated than that, made all the more complicated by the eccentric characters which populate the movie. 

Let’s talk about the characters, then. Christian Bale has always dedicated himself to his movies… to the point that it’s rather unhealthy. In the Machinist, he lost sixty pounds for the role, and then gained it all back within a year for Batman Begins. 

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Yeah, looks pretty drastic to me. In American Hustle, he’s taken to gaining a lot of weight. And unlike in Batman Begins, he did not use that weight to build muscle. That isn’t the only thing he does in this movie, of course, and his acting here is just amazing. Sure, it can feel a bit fake at certain points in the movie (mostly during the beginning), but you’ll forget all about that when you watch a scene of his with Jennifer Lawrence, who plays his crazy wife. 

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I know, people overuse that word nowadays. But she is crazy, and Jennifer Lawrence pulls it off magnificently. It’s so believable, which is why Christian Bale’s performance is enhanced whenever they’re in a scene together. It’s hard not to believe that this woman isn’t nuts, so his own reactions seem authentic and… rather comical with a dramatic overtone. 

You’ll know what I mean when you watch it. Let me talk about the plot again for a moment. The movie begins with Christian Bale making an elaborate combover, and immediately throws you into the middle of a sting operation. Oh, and Bradley Cooper messes up Christian Bale’s combover.

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David O. Russell is nothing, if not brave. It takes a lot of guts to just do that, and trust that whatever you’re watching is interesting enough that you don’t shrug and walk away. 

It’s here that you truly see Martin Scorsese’s influence on David O. Russell. The beginning reminds me of Goodfellas, although a lot funnier, and pop songs from the 70’s undercut a lot of emotional scenes. This can get a bit annoying, if I’m being honest. At times, it’s really awesome. Especially if you like the song, and think, “Exactly! That’s what I would’ve chosen!”

But, the soundtrack feels… impatient. There are plenty of scenes in the movie where you felt like an emotional punch was delivered to your gut, but the scene was disturbed by some obnoxious song. Why not let Amy Adams just act? The actors are too great to be dubbed over with music, and it brings me to my next point. American Hustle is entertaining, fast-paced, dramatic, and funny. 

And a little empty. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try to do my best. Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s previous directorial feature, was an amazing movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. It was simple, really. It was about a guy that beat up his boss, who was having an affair with his wife. He gets out of a mental institution, and ends up training for a dance competition with a nymphomaniac. (In retrospect, it doesn’t sound that simple.) It also cost very little to make (especially in comparison to American Hustle’s budget), and garnered some awards. (Jennifer Lawrence got an Oscar for it.)

And it’s better than American Hustle. Yes, I normally like movies with some violence, some intrigue, and some con men. The Sting is one of my favorite movies of all time, but American Hustle just feels hollow in comparison to Silver Linings Playbook. I feel like David O. Russell was pressured to up the stakes, rightfully so. But the music, the unreliable narration, the elaborate outfits… They’re all supposed to be icing. They’re not supposed to make up the cake entirely. 

That isn’t to say that this isn’t incredibly entertaining. Like I said, the acting here is incredible. Bradley Cooper essentially plays the villain, and I’m not going to say: “But he makes you feel sorry for him.”

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Not at all. He wasn’t written to be sympathetic, or even realistic. Almost none of these characters are realistic, but he plays his role with such relish and unpredictability that I can’t help but hope that he was the protagonist. Louie C.K. plays his superior in the movie, and you’ll see in their scenes together why I think that.

When Bradley Cooper asks for 2 million dollars, his boss tries to tell him an ice fishing story from his youth. He interrupts him halfway through, and guesses what the ending is. Flustered, his boss tells him that he’s wrong, and he doesn’t deserve to hear the story. Later on in the movie, Cooper asks Louie about the ice fishing story, and again, interrupts him to make up his own ending for the story. It tells you everything you need to know about this character. He’s a control freak, and with his fast-talking personality, he gets away with it most of the time. He can’t stand it when someone else is talking, and he tries to show that he’s smarter than everyone. 

If you’re looking for a sympathetic character, you could look to Jeremy Renner. His character is one of the more realistic portraits of the movie. He plays Mayor Carmine Polito, and Christian Bale is tasked with the difficult job of piling evidence against him to put him and his colleagues behind bars. He’s a corrupt politician, but he does what he does for the city of New Jersey. It made me think of something Christian Bale’s character said to Bradley Cooper. 

I’ll paraphrase, since my memory isn’t good enough that I can remember it perfectly. But, it went something along the lines of:

“The world isn’t black and white. It’s extremely grey.”

Pretty much every antihero in movie and television shares the same view (I do, as well), but I think what makes this morality speech stand out from most is that it doesn’t really refer to Bale. Or Adams. Or Lawrence and all the others. It refers to Carmine Polito. He’s a good guy that does illegal things for good. He’s a big slap to the face of Bale, and I thought it’s one of the smarter things in the movie. All these characters are grey, but Polito’s character is the only one that seems realistically so. 

That’s probably the downfall of this movie, but don’t let this movie’s little faults scare you away. It’s ridiculously entertaining, and I was laughing throughout the movie. If Cooper, Bale, Adams, and Lawrence win awards for it – I won’t be surprised in the least. They acted their asses off, and they deserve them.

But I just don’t think the movie really deserves any more awards than Silver Linings Playbook received.

~Jian

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