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Sunday, December 29, 2013

American Hustle

Friday afternoon, my spouse and I went to see American Hustle, the latest David O. Russell film starring Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Louisville's Jennifer Lawrence.

If you haven't seen the film, but intend to see it, stop reading this post because it includes spoilers.

The film is based on the  late-1970s and early-1980s Abscam scandal featuring political corruption (mostly bribery), which resulted in the conviction of the mayor of Camden NJ (a story-line emphasized in the film), half a dozen members of the House of Representatives, plus a U.S. Senator. The FBI videotaped many of the politicians accepting cash bribes.

Interestingly -- and this is the primary focus of the movie -- the FBI was aided by a colorful con man they employed to help convince the targeted politicians to accept cash in exchange for political favors. The con man, played in the film by Bale, had a British mistress/partner-in-crime (Adams) and a whistle-blowing spouse (whom he described as cuckoo) (Lawrence).

In the film, just about every character is playing some kind of con, ambitiously trying to get ahead in life by deceiving others, cutting corners, or breaking the law. The movie opens with Bale meticulously performing a sophisticated hair styling operation to hide the fact that he is bald on the top of his head. Later, however, the FBI agent (Cooper) is revealed to use small rollers to produce the natural-looking curls he sports throughout the film. Yet, in one key scene, the FBI agent tussles the criminal's comb-over.

The acting is almost uniformly terrific throughout the film. Adams and Bale are especially good. Lawrence is a talented actress, and does a very good job providing the film's comic relief, but I thought she was too young for the part she plays. Lawrence is Bale's aggrieved spouse and they have a son (roughly age 5 or 6) by one of her prior relationships. I suppose she could have been a teenage bride and mother, but the real con man's spouse was about 40 at the time of Abscam and the couple had been married for almost 20 years.

In any case, despite that minor distraction, I've now seen at least seven of Russell's feature films and American Hustle rates among his very best. For my tastes, it is quite difficult to top Three Kings, a movie I've shown in my class on "Global Politics Through Film." The film works as a synecdoche for the Persian Gulf war and has implications for the second given its particular anti-war message in an oil-state setting.

Russell also directed last year's Silver Linings Playbook, which netted Lawrence an Academy Award for Best Actress, and The Fighter, which earned Bale an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Russell was Oscar-nominated for his direction of those two films. I wouldn't be surprised to see this cast and perhaps Russell himself earn some 2013 nominations. Adams should be a very strong candidate for Best Actress.

Four stars for me.

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