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American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle #1

by Steve Habrat

Ever since his directorial debut in 1994, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that continues to surprise critics and audiences with the wide range of films that he produces. He’s done indie comedies (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees), mainstream comedies (Flirting with Disaster), war thrillers (Three Kings), political comedies (Nailed), sports dramas (The Fighter), romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), and now, just under a year after releasing his celebrated Silver Linings Playbook, he tackles another project that expands his intriguing body of work. Just in time for Oscar season we have American Hustle, a film that has been receiving glowing word of mouth over the past several months for its intoxicating blend of 70’s style, quirky characters, dry humor, and rich story that consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer at every turn. With expectations at a staggering high, you start to wonder if this tale of a sleazy con man, his gorgeous partner, and a shifty FBI agent could ever live up to such praise. Yet with each passing second, American Hustle hits entertaining levels that are off the charts, and it finds Mr. Russell in full form, radiating a confidence we have yet to see from this talented filmmaker. Russell can also thank his star Christian Bale, who gives the best performance of his career, for making American Hustle such a strutting must-see.

American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a smooth-talking con man that runs a chain of Laundromats and on the side operates a seedy loan business where he takes $5,000 from desperate clients and gives them nothing in return. Life is pretty good for Irving, but it gets even better when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is drifting from job to job. After showing his business off to Sydney, she jumps on board and assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a British bombshell with overseas banking connections. As Irving and Sydney rob their clients blind, the two strike up a romance that is kept from Irving’s motor-mouthed housewife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who paces around their home like a caged tiger. It doesn’t take long for Irving and Sydney’s operation to be thwarted by Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), an eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself at the bureau. Rather than locking Irving and Sydney up in jail, Richie decides to use the con artists to help him with an operation called Abscam, which would lure Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), the beloved Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into taking a bribe. Irving and Sydney reluctantly agree to help Richie, but their plot to take down Politio takes a dangerous turn when several other high level politicians and ruthless mobsters get involved.

With so much style and humor to burn, American Hustle wouldn’t even need its winding and weaving script that finds all of its boldly drawn characters attempting to get over on each other. From the opening retro studio logos, Russell is gleefully smashing open a post-Vietnam and Watergate time capsule, which allows us to glimpse an America that has embraced earth tones, tacky oversized sunglasses, perms, bell bottoms, leisure suits, plunging dress necklines, and disco music. It’s all so loud, excessive, and in your face that it threatens to be cartoonish. It also guarantees that American Hustle is going to be a strong contender in the production design category, costume design category, and make-up and hairstyling category. While the meticulous attention to detail certainly makes the film entertaining, the sense of humor that Russell injects is an absolute wonder. The film opens with Bale’s Irving fussing with his comb over, hilariously gluing strips of hair down over a tuft of fake fuzz. It is guaranteed to have the theater doubled over in laughter, especially when Cooper’s DiMaso decides he is going to mess the eccentric masterpiece of a hairdo up. Also brilliant is the winking trip to a flashing disco club, where Adams and Cooper burn through the dance floor like fiends. It’s wildly hilarious and hot-under-the-collar sexy as they shimmy and shake their way to a dimly lit bathroom stall. American Hustle’s crown jewel of hilarity comes when Irving and Rosalyn have their very first fiery encounter with a microwave, which they continuously refer to as the “science oven.”

Amy Adams;Jennifer Lawrence

Making American Hustle even more irresistible is the A-list cast, who all seem like they are locked in a never-ending battle for the spotlight. While they are all fantastic, none come close to matching the work of the out-of-this-world Christian Bale. We’ve seen Bale immerse himself in his characters before, but none have been quite as charming and alive as Irving, the pudgy con man with the meanest comb over you have ever seen. In front of Sydney, his clients, and even DiMaso, Irving has a silver tongue that really works a room. His confidence practically burns a hole in the screen, but when he’s behind closed doors and facing the wrath of Rosalyn, he’s a fidgeting disaster that clutches at his heart and pops little white pills to calm his weak ticker. Adams is a spitfire as his redheaded partner, Sydney, who throws on a British accent and toys with DiMaso’s heart. Adams and Cooper share two specific moments that could practically set the screen ablaze. Cooper nails his role as the slimy DiMaso, the hotshot FBI agent who wears his perm like a crown. Lawrence is as sexy as ever as Irving’s restless wife Rosalyn, a bored and neglected housewife who threatens the whole operation. Then there is Renner as Polito, the optimistic Mayor who is determined to bring back Atlantic City any way he can. Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s perpetually peeved boss who can never seem to get control of his determined agent.

As if the style, humor, and fluid performances weren’t enough to make you fall in love with American Hustle, the film also boasts a firecracker of a script from Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Slightly based on true events, it dares to be unpredictable, sweet, intimate, touching, and intensely character driven as all of these characters that claim to do anything for survival try to play each other any way they can. It’s a thrill not knowing what direction it’s going to veer off in next. All the bickering and scheming builds to a witty final act that springs a double-cross rush that leaves you floating out of the theater. Overall, American Hustle finds Russell at the top of his game as a filmmaker. He is working with an airtight script, capturing brilliant performances that play phenomenally off each other, filling his frames with gorgeous set and costume design, and allowing his sharp sense of humor to fuel its soul. The end result is gold-plated entertainment that is guaranteed to retain its shine for years to come and reward with multiple viewings. By the end of the film, you will respect the hustle.

Grade: A

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

by Steve Habrat

After spending time with the boxer Micky Ward and his dysfunctional clan in The Fighter, writer-director David O. Russell decides to lighten up a bit and tickle our funny bones with the romantic comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook. Based on the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook retains some of the grittiness and raw family drama that made up The Fighter, which turns this sappy exercise of love lost and love found into something very heartwarming and special. With his real-world tone set in the first few moments of the film, Russell then focuses on creating characters that are all a bit nutty, which instantly allows the viewer to fall in love with them. Russell even managed to make me really like Bradley Cooper, an actor that I have always felt was highly overrated and never as charismatic as he has been made out. With the character he takes here, Cooper makes a strong case for himself and actually manages to lure me over to “Team Cooper” if only for a little while (I hear there is another Hangover movie coming out this summer so my feelings may change once I see that one). Yet Silver Linings Playbook ultimately belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, the young but aggressive widow who befriends Cooper’s bipolar Patrick and attempts to keep his feet on the ground. It is the relationship between them that is the mushy core of Silver Linings Playbook and the part that you just won’t be able to shake off.

After catching his beloved wife Nikki (Played by Brea Bee) having an affair, Pat Solitano (Played by Bradley Cooper) suffers a violent melt down and is sent to a mental health facility for severe bipolar disorder. After eight months of treatment, Pat is released to his doting mother, Dolores (Played by Jacki Weaver), and his Philadelphia Eagles obsessed father Pat Sr. (Played by Robert DeNiro). With a new positive outlook on life, Pat spends his days refusing to take his medication, reading, exercising, and thinking up ways to win Nikki back, even though she has moved away and has a restraining order against him. Convinced he is on the right track, Pat reconnects with his friend Ronnie (Played by John Ortiz) and his overbearing wife, Veronica (Played by Julia Stiles). One evening, Pat attends a dinner at Ronnie’s house where he ends up meeting Tiffany, a beautiful young widow and recovering sex addict who he forms a quirky relationship with. As the two bond, Pat tries to convince Tiffany to help him communicate with Nikki but Tiffany will only help him if he enters a dance competition with her. Pat reluctantly agrees but he soon finds himself being pulled away from Tiffany by his football obsessed family. To make things worse, Pat begins to fear that he may not be able to win Nikki back.

While Silver Linings Playbook has some heavy moments that rival those found in The Fighter, Russell manages to milk some chuckles even from the most severe situations. The flashback scene where Pat catches Nikki having an affair is cleverly shot from Pat’s POV with a dreamy haze clouding the frame. It is a tense moment that throws a moment of hilarity our way just before Pat unleashes on the guy Nikki is having an affair with. Another scene finds Pat desperately searching for his wedding video. He bursts into his parent’s room in a panic and forces his mother out of bed to aid him in his search (this is just one moment where he bursts in on his poor parents in the middle of the night). As tensions rise and tempers flare, Pat suffers a breakdown that finds fists and slaps flying and the neighbors congregating outside the Solitano home in disbelief. It is a confrontation that should have us nervously shifting in our seats but there is something vaguely hilarious and absurd about it, especially when Patrick accidentally hits his mother. When we aren’t chuckling at the blow ups, we will be getting a kick out of a tour of Ronnie’s home, where Patrick and Tiffany continuously make one inappropriate statement after another (one involving iPod docks and Metallica is especially hilarious). Then there is awkward first date between Tiffany and Patrick on Halloween night, one that starts harmless enough but then spirals horribly out of control as tables are knocked over and the police respond to an argument outside of a movie theater as kids in Halloween costumes close in on poor Patrick. It is almost as if Russell is inviting us to observe the silver lining to these situations, to look past the seriousness and just laugh at our own insanity.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Then there are the spot on performances from Cooper and Lawrence, both that do crazy very, very well. I’ve never found Cooper to be particularly funny but I must say he really delivers the laughs here. He is pathetic in his constant state of delusion and stubbornness, insisting that he doesn’t need to take his medication because he thinks it makes him foggy and bloated. You can’t help but feel sorry for him as he insists that he will get back together with Nikki and everything will work out. When his extreme personality mixes with Tiffany’s, Silver Linings Playbook really soars. Tiffany is just as erratic as Cooper’s sporty Patrick, but she hides behind tangled mess of dark hair and thick eye make-up. It is certainly the most mature role that Lawrence has taken yet, one that dips into pure teary-eyed emotion and shies away from the chilly, closed-off intensity she brought to Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. On the outside, she is strong and firm, but the more she opens up, the easier it is for her to break. Meanwhile, DeNiro gives one of his strongest and emotionally charged performances in years as Pat’s father. A scene where he begs to spend more time with his son is heart wrenching and, yes, hilarious. Weaver is in top form as Pat’s fussy mother, who really enjoys making snacks for her boys as they huddle around the television. Chris Tucker is also present in a small role as Danny, a fellow patient from the mental heath facility who keeps trying to break out.

At two hours, I feared that Silver Linings Playbook would begin to loose steam in its second half but thankfully it doesn’t. The second half of the film focuses heavily on a bet made by Pat’s father and a fellow buddy with a bad gambling problem. Naturally, the bet centers on the Eagles and the big dance competition that Tiffany and Patrick are participating in. When we finally get to the big dance competition, the big moment seems all too brief and, dare I say, rushed. Either way, the dance routine is wonderfully handled and ends up being a bit of bubbly fun. As far as the family drama is concerned, Russell once again proves that he really knows how to handle this type of material and make the emotions relatable. Maybe it is the lack of polish that really allows these scenes and characters to come to life. Overall, Silver Linings Playbook is a pragmatic reminder that we are all bit crazy, some just a more than others. It is a touching, funny, sweet, and irresistible love story that really has us rooting for the emotionally shattered Patrick and Tiffany. It is a comforting reminder that every moment is another chance for us to heal, we just have to watch for the signs.

Grade: A-