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By Anita Felicelli

About this blog: I grew up in Palo Alto and now live in Mountain View with my husband, daughter and two corgis. After about a decade grappling with the law, first as a law student at UC Berkeley and then as a litigator around the Bay Area, I left ...  (More)

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Is "American Hustle" the Best Movie of the Year?

Uploaded: Dec 21, 2013
"Abscam" was a sting operation of 1978-1980, which resulted in the conviction of six corrupt members of the U.S House of Representatives, a U.S. senator, a New Jersey mayor and others. In that operation, con man Melvin Weinberg helped the FBI cook up the first major scheme to catch corrupt public officials. Melvin's story is very loosely captured in David O. Russell's phenomenal movie American Hustle, which opens with a placard that says "Some of this actually happened."

In the movie, a clever and complex con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), an ex-stripper who shares his love for Duke Ellington. Irving and Sydney develop Irving's cons by convincing desperate people that Sydney is an Englishwoman named Edith with London banking connections. Both are driven by the need to hide their shabby origins; both are masters of reinvention.

Caught by angsty and ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), Irving and Sydney are forced to work for the FBI to con powerful politicians and Mafioso. Irving comes up with a scheme in which various politicos will be offered bribes on behalf of a phony Arab sheik. In actuality, the Arab sheik is actually a Mexican FBI officer. The whole operation is threatened by Irving's psychologically unstable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

The "American hustle" of the title is not only Irving and Sydney's scams, but also the idea that Irving articulates: "we are all conning ourselves on way or another, just to get through life." This could have been just a fun, shiny, movie like Ocean's Eleven or Catch Me If You Can or a grim Martin Scorsese knock-off. Instead, both the comedy and the darkness have layers. Raw energy propels the audience headlong through a vulgar, decadent world. However, the screenplay is chockfull of cleverly phrased observations about survival and reinvention, and for all its hilarity, the movie is infused with an operatic sensibility.

All of the actors are terrific in their roles, which is essential for a character-driven ensemble piece like this one to succeed. Cooper's performance as DiMaso is perhaps a tad more convincing than he was in Silver Linings Playbook. Amy Adams gives an understated performance as Sydney Prosser, but the subtlety of her crucial role keeps the giddy story from spiraling out of control. Unsurprisingly, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom have won Oscars for past work in Russell movies, are both outstanding.

Christian Bale as Irving is paunchy, unattractive and still immensely enjoyable to watch. The movie opens on an excruciating scene of him trying to paste a toupee to his head. As a visionary who cooks up the con with the Arab sheik, Irving manages to maintain a strange balance between falling apart and thinking on his feet. He's a crook who cares about his responsibility to his adopted son.

Playing a troubled woman determined not to lose her husband, Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she's in. Described in Irving's voiceover as the "Picasso of passive-aggressive karate," she has a sequence a little over two-thirds of the way into the movie in which she fluidly transitions between cheerful sadism, desperation, reproach, and matter of fact self-aggrandizement. She's absolutely riveting and hilarious.

Movies themselves can function like the best cons ? as Irving says, people believe what they want to believe. There are a couple of places where the plot doesn't feel as sharp as it could be, but I think to nitpick in this instance is to miss all the other pleasures this movie offers, to miss the pleasure of the con. This movie deserves to garner a lot of Oscar nominations, including Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress.

As in Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, there's a reveal (or reinvention) late in the movie, but I think Russell pulls it off much better in this one. From standout performances to smart, interesting writing, from period costumes to a perfect soundtrack, American Hustle is Russell's best movie and definitely the most entertaining movie I've seen in the theater this year.

If you've seen it, what did you think of American Hustle?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by member of another community, a resident of another community,
on Dec 22, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Where would you rank it among "Gravity" and "12 years a Slave"?

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Dec 22, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Hi member of another community - I liked it more than Gravity mostly because of the actors that were in it. I am not a fan of Sandra Bullock and only marginally interested in George Clooney's acting. I think, too, that I am the type of viewer who places a bigger premium on a fascinating script and interesting characters (American Hustle) than on panoramic shots and wonderful spectacles (Gravity). But I have not yet seen 12 Years a Slave - the reviews left me wanting to wait to see it on DVD rather than be totally immersed while viewing it in a theater. Which of those two did you think was better?

Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 11:35 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Haven't seen "American Hustle" yet but likely will, after reading your review.

I did, though, follow the Abscam case at the time. A few of the covertly videotaped bribery targets reacted indignantly (repeated, in Sen. Pressler's case, on being labeled a hero when the story broke: "what have we come to if turning down a bribe is heroic?"). But several other officials lined up at the offered trough with an ease that surprised even the FBI, as if bribes were those politicians' _ modus vivendi._

The case also was a rare high point in a Jimmy Carter administration memorable for a President constantly out of his depth, obsessed with image and superficial achievements, exasperated (just like Nixon) at inability to get the press off his case and on his side. (And this is from someone who voted for him!) Comedian Dan Aykroyd secured his fame with devastating "Saturday Night Live" parodies of Carter's PR "chats," opening with Aykroyd mugging an insecure, overeager hound-dog smile, and a calculatedly offhand "Hi!"

I've learned from countless history-based movies that you can spot which real-life players collaborated in the script by which film characters come across as most noble (however flawed). On this principle and your report, I assume Weinberg had some hand in this one.

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Hi Max, Interestingly I think one of the people who formed the basis for the ambitious fictional agent Richie DiMaso collaborated on the script. And Richie does not come off that well. However, Weinberg evidently collaborated with respect to the book on which the screenplay was based. My source for that is this Slate article:

Thanks for your comment, hope you enjoy the movie and happy holidays!

Posted by not impressed, a resident of Downtown North,
on Dec 26, 2013 at 10:33 pm

I saw it today with my husband (who liked it) and teenaged son (who was bored, as I was). The movie is character-driven -- focused on Irving -- and the pace becomes funereal about halfway through the movie. I found myself checking my watch every ten minutes. There's not nearly enough con in this movie to keep the hustle going.

Has anyone over the age of 45 watched this movie? I ask because I found Amy Adams' clothing ridiculous for a 1980-era businesswoman. That was the era where women wore floppy ties and shoulder pads. No one with provocative outfits including necklines that plunged all the way to her waist would have been taken seriously. Apparently the costume designer got his inspiration from old Playboy magazines, which makes sense since most professional women dress like Playboy models.

Jennifer Lawrence steals scenes with her giddy eccentricities, but she is completely unbelievable as a character.

It's worth seeing, but put it on your wait till video list.

Posted by roubert coumpoung, a resident of Esther Clark Park,
on Jan 27, 2014 at 7:42 am

This film is very unusual for me, the first time I watched this film
was because my friend showed me the link where I can watch the film for free,
which in [deleted as copyright infringement]
even there I\'ve downloaded it, you will regret it if you do not watch the film this

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