12.28.2013

The Films of 2013: American Hustle



American Hustle opens magisterially, with a blast of jazz—Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues,” from his Live at Newport album—ostensibly because, as we later learn, it’s the album over which the film’s central couple, played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, realize that they share a deep connection.  But the use of Ellington is important in other ways, too, not least of which being that it signals to us the nature of the film we’re about to watch.  Its infectious soundtrack of ’70s pop hits notwithstanding, American Hustle is governed by the spirit of jazz; it’s a jazz performance, a jam session for five talented actors who might be called “The David O. Russell Quintet,” after the writer-director who here serves as their band-leader and showman.  The sheer pleasure of this film, which is otherwise pretty slight, lies in watching these five, four of whom are Russell veterans, riff together so ecstatically. 

The film reunites Christian Bale and Amy Adams from Russell’s The Fighter and, in slightly smaller but no less memorable roles, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook.  Newbie Jeremy Renner rounds out the combo.  The film proceeds to arrange them into various groupings: Bale and Adams establish themselves as the principal voices of the film, with Cooper and Lawrence frequently interjecting, and Renner moving around them from the outside.  In one variation, the two women pair off for a confrontational duet; there are other couplings (Adams and Cooper do a slow burn; Bale and Lawrence do up-tempo screwball numbers together); and all five converge, dressed to the nines, for an impressive set piece at the midpoint of the film.  Each performance is big, showy, and funny in its own way—though Lawrence, whose New Jersey floozy participates in a long tradition of dumb blonde comediennes from Carole Lombard to Goldie Hawn, is so irrepressibly energetic that she upstages just about everybody.  And there are special guests who turn up by surprise to sit in on various scenes.

It’s entirely appropriate that the appeal of American Hustle lies in its performances, because it’s a movie that argues that con artists get off on the theatrical fun of the con game.  Its characters play at being as flamboyant, as outrageous, and as excessive as its actors do; its characters are actors.  (That’s what makes them such successful criminals.)  The “hustle” in American Hustle refers to the thrill of performance, disguise, putting on phony accents, playing scenes, working with elaborate costumes and props.  And you can almost hear the echoes of Russell and his actors laughing together just before the cameras began to roll, as they put on their polyester clothes and tease their elaborate coiffures.  Given the time and energy that’s been put into the costumes, hair, and makeup, it’s possible to imagine that the film was created as one big excuse for these five to play ’70s dress-up (“let’s perm Bradley Cooper’s hair!”).  That they play it so hilariously, and so entertainingly, is a tribute to their own con artistry—and to Russell’s own abilities as a first-rate hustler.

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