"American Hustle," or When Oscar Bait Doesn't Feel Like Oscar Bait: A Review

Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper let loose in this highbrow romp.

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Complex Original

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At any other time of the year, telling your friends that you, a movie critic/writer, have seen a new movie usually brings on a casual questions like, "Is it any good?" But in December, the question becomes more pointed: "You think it's going to win any Oscars?" Which is another way of saying: "Do I have to see it? Will everyone be talking about?"

It makes sense. Commercials with "from the Academy Award-winning director of [insert past Best Picture nominee here]…" and transparent attempts to appeal to Academy voters (e.g., biopics, period-specific clothing, Meryl Streep's name) have conditioned people to judge fourth-quarter movie releases differently. The idea of entertainment gives way to the potential for important THEMES and shiny hardware shaped like wiener-free gold dudes. It can make you miss the mindlessness of summertime blockbusters.

That said, everything about American Hustle radiates "Give me every award." Its checklist of credentials is lengthy: the Oscar-nominated director, David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook); the period setting, New Jersey and New York City circa 1978; and the A-list cast, a who's who of recent Academy Awards darlings, including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence. There's even a prestigious producer, the young maverick Megan Ellison, who, through spending her own family-supplied cash, has used her production company, Annapurna Pictures, to help make the past awards season's darlings True Grit, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Master.

American Hustle's marketing has also been fueling the "Come and get me, Oscar" fire, selling the film in trailers and commercials as a Scorsese-esque drama ripe with double-crosses, showy performances, and criminal-minded violence.

But here's something that hasn't been as heavily broadcast: American Hustle is one of the year's best comedies. It's a riotous caper movie performed with grandeur by its in-command cast, all of whom play against type. Bale, instead of looking ripped or skeletal (see: The Machinist), is a chubby schlub with a terrible hairpiece. Lawrence, usually America's sweetheart, is wonderfully grating as a superficial Long Island housewife. Adams, one of Hollywood's most elegant and reserved actresses, is unabashedly hyper-sexual. Bradley Cooper, the "Sexiest Man Alive," is hilariously douchey and abhorrent as a scheming FBI agent.

Together, David O. Russell's stellar cast tear through their director's vibrant, twisty script (on which he shares credits with screenwriter Eric Warren Singer), relishing every absurd moment, snappy one-liner, and lengthy bit of profane banter. But not for one second does it feel like anyone on screen in American Hustle should be thinking of that future Oscar acceptance speech. This movie is a romp, albeit one made by a top-shelf director and starring one of the better Hollywood ensembles in recent memory. But it's a romp, nonetheless.

The only thing separating American Hustle from Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues are the numerous Academy Awards statues on its collective résumé and the presence of an actual plot, not the loosely connected vignettes that comprise Ron Burgundy's latest misadventure. Based on the real-life ABSCAM scandal, American Hustle finds Bale and Adams playing con artists and lovers, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Presser, respectively. Irving's a charmer, whose much younger wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), nags him at home, sending him into Sydney's warm embrace. Killing it financially with his various endeavors, Irving, along with Sydney, gets cornered by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), an arrogant go-getter who falls for Sydney—fooling him with her alter-ego, "Lady Edith Greensley," complete with a fugazi British accent—while forcing she and Irving to help catch public officials conducting illegal business. Their primary target: white knight Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of the run-down Camden, New Jersey, and easy mark for the manipulative Irving.

Russell plays fast and loose with reality. The film opens with the disclaimer of, "Some of this actually happened," a nod towards American Hustle's overall playfulness. Entirely proficient but much less manic in previous films like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell conducts matters behind the camera here as if he binged on Goodfellas and Casino before starting work on this picture. The camera zooms around rooms as Irving and Sydney deliver cheeky exposition via voice overs. To provide background characterization on Irving, Russell interjects childhood flashbacks that evoke Henry Hill's younger days in Goodfellas. Hell, there's even a brief but memorable appearance from Robert De Niro, playing mobster Victor Tellegio with the wisdom of a senior citizen Jimmy Conway. Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, channels Lorraine Bracco's Karen Hill and Sharon Stone's Ginger Rothstein in her handling of Rosalyn—she's loud, needy, and unafraid to use her sexuality to her advantage. Lawrence owns the character's brashness.

Like her fellow hustlers, Lawrence is having a blast performing David O. Russell's flashy, splashy script. One of the film's biggest laughs comes from Lawrence's rant about a microwave, or a "science oven," as Carmine refers to it when giving the then-new-age appliance to Irving as a gift.

If not for Martin Scorsese's upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street (trust, you're in for a treat with that one), American Hustle would represent the most fun Hollywood's elite have had working this Oscar season. But with meatier pictures like 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station, or formal marvels like Gravity, dominating the conversation, it's a little crazy to think that American Hustle is gonna sweep the Oscars. But anyway, who cares? It's the Oscars. Forget about it. Er, fuggedaboutit.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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