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American Hustle

If Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas is your favorite movie of all time, you are exactly the viewer that Hollywood has in its sights this holiday season. (God knows it’s a big enough target.) There’s Scorsese’s own The Wolf of Wall Street, which, to go by the trailers, looks like GoodFellas in the Stock Market.

And there’s American Hustle, the new film by David O. Russell, which borrows as much (and as openly) from Scorsese’s 1990 classic as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights in 1997.

Russell’s film is loosely based on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s, in which a dozen or so public officials ranging from Philadelphia city councilmen to a United States senator were arrested for accepting bribes. The story unfolds from the point of view of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, this time at the high end of his frighteningly malleable weight index), a Brooklyn anything-for-a-buck guy. At heart a good guy who can’t leave his wacked-out wife (Jennifer Lawrence) because of his love for his adopted son, he runs a scam taken cash deposits from people desperate for big loans that he knows he can’t deliver. (If you have trouble reconciling those two pieces of info about Irv, you should probably avoid this movie.)

Irv and his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) runs afoul of the FBI, in the person of ambitious agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Rather than turn them in, he enlists them and their operation in an attempt to go after bigger targets, his ego growing with each success.

Given that most people who see American Hustle either don’t remember or never heard of Abscam, it’s probably pointless to complain that Russell and co-writer Eric Singer deviate substantially from what actually happened. But let me make the complaint anyway: They do call the operation by that name, and while the opening disclaimer that “Some of this actually happened” may imply that most of this did not, audiences are prone to accept what they see in the movies as history.

As I write this, American Hustle is picking up all kind of critics awards, I suspect largely from reviewers reacting to its energy and design more than anything else. (Russell’s infatuation with hair styles of the era is extreme.) That its moral issues are confused may accurately reflect reality—people still argue whether Abscam caught crooks or created them by entrapping public officials—but I don’t get the feeling that Russell designs his film that way: I think he just likes chaos. Many great comic filmmakers do, most notably Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, all of whose films surely sit on Russell’s DVD shelf. But Russell doesn’t have their skills. He gives his actors long stretches of dialogue to rattle off at breakneck speed, but it’s not well written for that purpose. He encourages them to overact, but he doesn’t have the ability to work those performances to his own end. The result is mostly wearying, like spending too much time on the same roller coaster that just leaves you back where you started from.

Watch the trailer for American Hustle

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