American Hustle *** (2013)
Initially I dismissed American Hustle as David O. Russell trying to be Scorsese. Maybe it was the glaring 70s milieu, which automatically recalled Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. After repeated viewings I realized American Hustle offers more than flashy style, but is a perceptive character study disguised as a procedural.
American Hustle imitates the style of Goodfellas with its multiple narrations, rock and roll soundtrack, and fascination with low level players. Unlike the wiseguys in Goodfellas who defy society through creating an alternate one with their own standards of upward mobility, the con artists in American Hustle go for the big money by playing the system against itself.
The three leads Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper flourish in their roles as smooth talking city dwellers. They must adapt in order to make the big score. Jennifer Lewis shines as Irving's eccentric wife Roslyn.
An obese Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, an owner of dry cleaning businesses and sometime dealer in forged art. He meets the seductive Sydney (Amy Adams) and they team up in real estate Ponzi schemes. When an undercover FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper) catches them in the act, they are forced to take part in the famous Ab-Scam operations of the late 1970s when undercover agents disguised as Arabs set up politicians to take bribes.
Irving and Sydney set their sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), populist mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Renner, looking like Joe Pesci, comes across as sincere in his dreams to revitalize his community, but gets done in by his own good intentions.
Although set in the 70s, American Hustle would work in any decade. I believe early versions of the script set the story in the 1930s. Hustling and capitalism go hand in hand, a trait American Hustle celebrates and laments.
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