A fictional film set in the seductive world of one of the most stunning scandals to rock our nation, American Hustle tells the story of brilliant con man Irving Rosenfeld, who along with his equally cunning British partner and lover Sydney Prosser is forced to work for a wild unhinged FBI agent Richie DiMaso. DiMaso pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia that's as dangerous as it is enchanting. Renner is Carmen Polito, the passionate, volatile, New Jersey political operator caught between the con-artists and Feds. Irving's unpredictable wife Rosalyn could be the one to pull the thread that brings the entire world crashing down.
Con artist movies are a dime a dozen. Most revel in their cleverness and live and die by their twists, turns, red herrings, and big reveals. Yet few possess as much depth, texture, and emotional complexity as 'American Hustle,' writer-director David O. Russell's sublimely entertaining film that takes grifting to a lofty plane while bringing it down to a relatable level. Sure, conning can be a high stakes profession, with huge payoffs and enough risk and danger to satisfy the most crazed adrenaline junkie, but it also exists on a daily basis in our humdrum, everyday lives, helping us jockey for and exert control in our personal relationships, and keeping us sane. Manipulation, passive-aggressive behavior, and sexual provocation are all forms of emotional gamesmanship, and Russell deftly infuses each one into his richly satisfying tale. Though we may be loath to admit it, we're all con artists to a certain degree. We even con ourselves - "just to get through life," as one character says - and once Russell lets us in on that secret, we're putty in his hands and look at his film from an entirely different and more intimate perspective.
And it's intimacy that defines Russell's work. Only a handful of directors can suck us into their movies as quickly, and it's all due to the finely drawn, multi-faceted people who populate them. With a significant look, incisive line of dialogue, or expertly constructed montage, Russell connects us to his characters, forming a sustainable bond that begins almost instantly and lasts until the closing credits roll. The basic plot of 'American Hustle' can certainly stand on its own, but it's the characters that make it riveting. As he also does so well in 'The Fighter' and 'Silver Linings Playbook,' Russell focuses on fascinating figures and allows the stories to develop around them. Such methodology may seem elementary, but it's difficult to successfully execute. Yet Russell does it time and again, and with seemingly little effort.
On its surface, 'American Hustle' chronicles the exploits of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), two successful, romantically involved swindlers who are brought down by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious, blustery FBI agent with starry-eyed dreams of professional grandeur. To avoid jail time, Irving and Sydney agree to help Richie nail some other small-time crooks, but what begins as a modest, easy-to-execute plan evolves into Abscam, a complex, real-life 1970s government sting operation targeting corrupt politicians on the take. And the first victim of this covert mission is the unassuming, beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who helped legalize gambling in Atlantic City and now leads a movement to rebuild the seaside resort. But Carmine needs cash to finance his vision, and he hopes to get it from a bogus Arab sheik in Irving's employ. At first, all goes swimmingly, but as everyone becomes more deeply embroiled in the scam, it begins to spiral out of control, shattering trusts, affecting relationships, and even endangering lives. And Irving's loose cannon wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), just might be the one who flushes everything - and everyone - down the toilet.
Russell, however, is a bit of a con artist, too, and like the slick deceptions and dirty double-crosses that permeate his intricate narrative web, he tries to hoodwink his audience into believing 'American Hustle' is all about who's sticking it to whom and how and why...when it's really a probing character study of five fascinating personalities and an examination of how this rollercoaster experience shapes and changes them. The movie tells us up front that only "some of this actually happened," a brutally honest assessment that gives Russell the freedom to paint with broader brushstrokes and explore the more interesting liaisons that fuel his captivating yarn. As Sydney explains in a voiceover early on, "My dream - more than anything - was to become anyone else other than who I was." And she's not alone. All the characters at some point lose their identity, seek to escape their dead-end existences, and strive to reinvent themselves, but the paths they choose and personas they create don't always fulfill their fantasies.
Russell's script, which he co-wrote with Eric Warren Singer, is packed with memorable lines and exchanges ("She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate" is one of my favorites) and performed with gusto by the accomplished cast that's a hybrid of both 'The Fighter' (Bale and Adams) and 'Silver Linings Playbook' (Cooper, Lawrence, and Robert De Niro, who enjoys a wonderful cameo as, what else, a tough mob kingpin). All the actors venture outside their respective comfort zones and seem to relish doing it, but per usual, Bale, this time taking a leaf from De Niro's 'Raging Bull' playbook, undergoes the most stunning transformation, gaining 40 pounds and packing on a sizeable pot belly to bring the disheveled Irving to life. Bale has often looked emaciated on screen ('The Machinist,' 'Rescue Dawn'), but his chubbiness here is equally startling...and effective, and the actor embraces every droopy bulge. Cooper dons a tight curly perm and dangles gold chains in his chest hair to achieve his unique '70s vibe, while Adams and Lawrence go the plunging neckline route with a variety of garishly revealing outfits. Concentrating on their performances instead of their cleavage can be tough, but both women file magnetic portrayals that grab our attention. Though Adams' British accent as alter ego Edith Greensly is more authentic and consistent than Lawrence's coarse Jersey inflections, the contrast between the prim-and-proper and down-and-dirty is striking. And it's a tribute to all the actors that they don't become engulfed or overshadowed by their flashy hair, makeup, and wardrobe, as well as the film's impeccable period production design. No one loved the '70s, but the movie's creative team makes going back in time a blast.
'American Hustle' received a whopping 10 Academy Award nominations, but was completely - and unjustly - shut out. All four principal actors were nominated for Oscars and all four would have made deserving winners had they been anointed. And so would Russell, who received nods for directing and original screenplay. Though Russell is 0-for-5 at the Oscars overall, and his three nominated movies - 'The Fighter,' 'Silver Linings Playbook,' and 'American Hustle' - have gone a combined 3-for-25 (Lawrence as Best Actress in 'Silver Linings,' and Bale and Melissa Leo as Best Supporting Actor and Actress in 'The Fighter' are the only victors), his films are more exciting, passionate, and moving than most of today's mainstream productions. 'American Hustle' may not be the best of the three, but it's still unquestionably one of the finest motion pictures of 2013. And that's no con.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'American Hustle' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. A 50GB dual-layer disc, standard-def DVD, and a leaflet containing a code to access the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy reside inside. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'The Monuments Men' and 'Inside Llewyn Davis,' and a Sony: Be Moved promo precede the static menu with music.
'American Hustle' boasts a pleasing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that highlights the colorful world of the 1970s well. Excellent clarity and contrast lend the image appropriate depth and allow us to zero in on such minute background details as intricate wallpaper patterns and various knickknacks adorning tables and mantles. Some light grain is visible here and there, but a silky smoothness predominates, and no print blemishes dot the pristine source material. Hues are bright and vibrant, with reds appearing especially lush (take a gander at Adams' jacket and the bedroom decor of Irving's son), yet gold sequined dresses, the pale blue of Carmine's shingled home, and yellow taxicabs all make distinct impressions, too. Black levels are deep and inky, whites are crisp and don't bloom, and fleshtones remain natural and stable throughout.
Marvelously sharp close-ups showcase fine facial features, and great shadow delineation keeps crush at bay most of the time. Though a few scenes err on the bright side, the image stays well-balanced and flaunts an appropriately natural look. No banding, noise, pixelation, or other anomalies creep into the picture, and no digital enhancements seem to have been applied. Like the transfers culled from most recent releases, this one has few faults and will certainly please the film's many fans.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies clear, well-modulated sound with a fine depth of tone, but surround activity is subtle and sparse at best. Occasional rear bleed perks up the mix, but most of the audio is anchored up front. Decent stereo separation helps widen the soundscape, but the track just doesn't pack any sort of visceral punch. The only time it really comes alive is when a host of recognizable 1970s tunes, from such artists as Chicago, Donna Summer, Carole King, The Bee Gees, America, Paul McCartney & Wings, and Elton John, punctuate various scenes. Superior fidelity allows the music, which includes Danny Elfman's score and the jazz stylings of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, to fill the room and heighten the impact of the on-screen action.
Dialogue, of course, is the movie's most important component, and most of it is clear and easy to comprehend. Some whispered exchanges are difficult to decipher, and when two conversations overlap, both become a bit muddled. A wide dynamic scale manages high- and low-end tones with ease, but bass frequencies are somewhat muted, so the audio doesn't possess much range. Best of all, no distortion or imperfections impede our listening pleasure. Though I hoped for more oomph from the track, it still delivers solid sound that keeps us engaged in the story.
Only a couple of extras adorn this release. An audio commentary would have been a nice addition, but Russell hasn't done one since 'The Fighter.'
Featurette: "The Making of 'American Hustle'" (HD, 17 minutes) - All the principal actors, as well as director David O. Russell, participate in this absorbing look at the film's production. Russell talks about the movie's romantic core, the contradictions of the colorful characters, and how he sought to make the stakes as high from an emotional and personal standpoint as they were from a procedural standpoint. Bale discusses how he became interested in the project and gained 40 pounds so he could fully realize his character, while Adams reflects on her plunging necklines and wearing costumes outside her comfort zone. Cooper professes his love for and attachment to his character, Lawrence praises the material, and Renner outlines his research for his role. We also learn about how the '70s were so meticulously recreated, and the importance of costuming and makeup to the movie's authenticity. A cut above most making-of pieces, this featurette is well worth one's time.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (HD, 22 minutes) - Eleven sequences are included and, unlike most collections of excised material, all have merit. Extra character beats abound, and a couple of scenes more fully develop the friendship between Irving and Carmine. Of special interest are two full-length versions of Jennifer Lawrence manically cleaning house while lip-syncing to 'Live and Let Die' (which appears in the film) and 'Evil Ways' (an outtake). Both are tour de force performances (though 'Live and Let Die' is markedly superior), as Lawrence releases torrents of anger and heartache while dusting and vacuuming.
Though it didn't win a single Oscar, despite 10 nominations, 'American Hustle' - with its colorful characters, infectious '70s groove, and well crafted script and performances - stands tall as one of 2013's best films. Writer-director David O. Russell follows up 'The Fighter' and 'Silver Linings Playbook' with another homerun that studies the always absorbing art of the con from multiple perspectives within the framework of the real-life Abscam scandal. The quintet of stars - Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner - immerse themselves in the material, and their superior work enhances the movie's entertainment quotient exponentially. Though somewhat slim on supplements, Sony's Blu-ray presentation features solid video and audio transfers that bring all the outrageous style and inimitable music to brilliant life. Few artists celebrate all the quirks and foibles that make us tick with as much insight and passion as Russell, who's once again at the top of his game. 'American Hustle' may not have received any love from the Academy, but it will easily earn the enduring affection of serious film fans. Highly recommended.