American Hustle makes “mediocre” good

American Hustle was directed by David O. Russell. I am a fan of heist and con movies and I have never seen any of Russell’s movies so this was a new experience for me. Complemented by a beautiful soundtrack from the legendary Danny Elfman, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) get arrested by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) for running a small scale bank fraud scheme in late 1970’s New York. Irving and Sydney are then subsequently forced into running a large scale con for Richie directed at taking down large scale corruption within the government.

The plot development was mediocre and uninteresting with an ending that had a typical resolve for the average clandestine/con movie: con man cons the con men and live happily ever after. “I hate plots. I’m all about characters,” acknowledges Nolan “That’s it.” Clearly the flow of the movie was not about who gets the final word and how they did it in the end. It was more about the flow of these scenes where the bizarre characters have to come up with equally bizarre solutions to their screwed up plans whether the obstacles were government, mafia or faulty relationships.

I was content with the movie seeming half developed.

The actors brought the scenes to life with mostly improvised material. Bradley Cooper did some great fast talking as a federal agent, desperate to secure his biggest case. Christopher Nolan deformed himself into this character with that seemed eternally unhappy with his situation. He gained 40 pounds to produce a characteristic beer belly for the part and even herniated two disks in his spine because of a slouch he maintained during the shooting.

The cinematography was captivating at times. I felt nostalgia as Irving and Sydney stood among an endless train of people’s dry cleaning. Sometimes shots were focused on gestures rather than faces, revealing the decorated hands of 1980’s thieves, swindlers and impoverished detectives. There were some long single-take shots that really illustrated the scenery and played with depth perception and the space around the camera.

The lighting was fantastic, especially indoors. When Irving talks to his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) the room is fills up with a blend of lamplight and ugly, red drapes.

Darkness covers the casino mobsters’ halves as they step out from their shadows for some shady deals. Character silhouettes look like they’re cut out from the film before the screen fills with lights and cheering people in a political rally and a disco party.

Russel took some great liberties to really illustrate the feel of the late 80’s. Elevators were decorated with familiar, ugly wood paneling and filthy cheap drywall lined the walls of an interrogation room. The value of the dollar was clearly spelled out when someone slapped a $10 bill on a diner table to cover the tab for two people and probably covered the server’s tip as well. Immediately after, Irving stands next to Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), staring at a microwave discussing it as a future oven of some sort.