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Everyone Hustles To Survive
David O. Russell has never been the most prolific director, having helmed seven films in his 20 years as a filmmaker. It was a little surprising, then, that only a year after his major hit Silver Linings Playbook he had another film ready to go. American Hustle saw the return of several of Russell's favorite actors, with its throwback '70s style and comedic tendencies. Though it's not to everyone's taste, American Hustle is a big film that risks a lot give us great performances and a near-flawless Blu-ray release.
Facts of the Case
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, The Fighter) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, The Master) are in the con game, and in trouble. They've been caught by an FBI agent looking to make his name (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook). In exchange for not going to jail, Irving and Sydney have to convince crooked-but-large-hearted NJ mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker) to take a bribe.
2013 was a pretty non-contentious year in terms of Oscar material. Gravity was an obvious technical fav, 12 Years a Slave the historical drama that seems to win regularly, and the major acting categories provided little in the way of upset. The real exception is American Hustle, with 10 Oscar nominations and not a single win. That happens occasionally, but what it reveals about American Hustle is just how divisive the film. Those who loved it really loved it, while those who didn't really hated it.
I'm largely in the first camp, and I want to highlight some things about the film that are great and will hopefully set up viewer expectation to not be disappointed by what American Hustle isn't.
The first thing that viewers need to understand about American Hustle is that it's the third of writer/director David O. Russell's improvisation-based dramedies (though The Fighter is probably more drama than comedy, though it has its moments). In each case, including the well-regarded Silver Linings Playbook, Russell writers a scenario and then hires a group of excellent actors to improvise around the scenarios and then constructs the film around this combination.
The first consequence of this procedure is that Russell can gather a troupe of excellent actors together. We have return Russell alums Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. All of them create well-wrought characters and then inhabit them fearlessly. What other current actor is going to let a film open on him putting on an elaborate comb-over besides Christian Bale. But he commits to the comb-over and the paunch, just like Cooper commits to his curls, Lawrence to her Jersey accent, and Amy Adams to going ultra-vulnerable (even without make-up). And that's just those who've worked with Russell before. We also get brilliant performances from Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K. and Shea Wigham. Whatever one thinks of the plot or direction, this is an actors' movie and they each give amazing performances.
The other consequence of Russell's working method is that each of his recent films starts out rather wild—The Fighter opens on Christian Bale monologuing as his character, Silver Linings Playbook opens on violence—and American Hustle opens in mid-con. More importantly, each of Russell's recent films feels like it could go anywhere. The characters feel real, not like they're in a movie, and like they're not following a script. But on the other hand, his films are also genre films—the fight film, the rom-com, the con/heist film—and so by the end he has to bow down to convention. That's why The Fighter ends with a conventional set of fights, Silver Linings Playbook ends with a rom-com dance-off, and American Hustle has to wrap-up its elaborate games to finish off the narrative. Viewers have to be willing to enjoy both wild improvisational energy and conventional dynamics to appreciate American Hustle.
David O. Russell also uses American Hustle as an opportunity to re-live the greatest hits of '70s filmmaking. His large ensemble and filming techniques recall the heyday of Scorsese, and that includes the look of the film. That grainy, saturated look is perfectly supported by this 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded image. Detail is strong throughout, which includes a near-perfect rendition of grain, and lots of bold, well-saturated colors. Black levels are deep and consistent. What's most amazing is that the image showcases Russell's commitment to '70s decor, costuming, and style. Finally, there's no apparent digital manipulation of the image. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is equally impressive. Dialogue, including numerous fast-paced exchanges, is always clean and clear, while the '70s soundtrack sounds detailed and dynamic. There's a bit of separation in the surrounds to establish atmosphere as well.
Bonus features begin with a 17 minute making-of featurette that features interviews with all the big names associated with the film. It's pretty EPK-style, so a bit light, but it's nice to hear from everybody. Then, we get 22 minutes of deleted/extended scenes that give us a bit more insight into the characters and the way the film constructed the actors' performances. The extras here are nice, but I can see fans wanting even more. This release seems timed to cash in on the awards season buzz. I haven't heard anything about a special edition, but fans can hope that a commentary and more info about ABSCAM might be forthcoming.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lots of people complained the ending of Silver Linings Playbook was too conventional, too pat. The same could be said of American Hustle. I enjoyed the way that the film wrapped up its numerous threads, but the same charges can apply to American Hustle—it's ending is neatly, perhaps too neatly, wrapped up by the end of its 138 minutes. The biggest problem with Russell's approach, which many people hinted at without articulating, is that American Hustle can sometimes feel like a noose tightening—everything starts out wild and freewheeling and crazy but gradually gets more and more restrained and constrained. That feeling obviously makes a lot of viewers uncomfortable.
I was too young to witness the ABSCAM scandal, but anyone looking to American Hustle for a fair or accurate representation of the situation will be disappointed. The facts are radically changed to suit Russell's improvised spectacle, and I'm pretty sure that all the characters involved in the movie are significantly more likable on-screen than their real-life counterparts. Certainly it seems like those who remember ABSCAM are more likely to find American Hustle more difficult to enjoy.
The flip-side of Russell's commitment to his actors is the charge of self-indulgence. Those not pre-disposed to enjoy the '70s throwback vibe of the film might see the elaborate preparations of Bale and Cooper as unnecessary, and Jennifer Lawrence's commitment to that accent might seem goofy. The beauty of American Hustle is that it's willing to risk that kind of reaction, and in so doing it has the ability to show us something we haven't seen in a while.
There's an old saying: Go big or go home. American Hustle is the cinematic embodiment of that admonition. It goes big in terms of plot, acting and costuming, with more commitment than the average Hollywood film. That means it risk alienating a large chunk of an audience unwilling to go along with these bold decisions. However, I think if viewers know what they're getting into, American Hustle is a satisfying experience, especially for fans of the actors. The fact that this Blu-ray is gorgeous and has some nice supplements is even better.
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