published Thursday, December 19th, 2013

'American Hustle' easy to appreciate, hard to enjoy

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence star in Columbia Pictures’
"American Hustle."
Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence star in Columbia Pictures’ "American Hustle."
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

'AMERICAN HUSTLE'

Rating: R for pervasive language,

some sexual content and brief violence.

Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.

Films by director David O. Russell are dangerous, like a slice of pizza fresh from the oven.

On the surface, all is well. Cheese. Crust. Pepperoni maybe. OK, got it.

Then you bite down and hit the molten-lava sauce underneath. Shock. Pain. Jangled nerves.

Russell movies have the same effect. One thing on the surface, something different down below. And what’s below isn’t always pleasant.

His last, the multiple-Oscar-nominated “Silver Linings Playbook,” was, at heart, a romantic comedy, but it was also a deep, sometimes disturbing look at mental illness. His newest, “American Hustle,” is a grifter movie, con men conning others and being conned themselves (and sometimes conning themselves). But down deep, it examines desperate people who are uncomfortable in their own skins, unhappy with their lives and doing anything they can to survive, even if they hate what they’re doing.

While Russell’s movies have wickedly funny, sharply penned screenplays and he gets remarkable performances out of his actors (Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress for her role in “Silver Linings Playbook”), his films are easier to appreciate than they are to actually enjoy. It’s hard to like a film when such raw, uncomfortable emotions are spewing out all over the screen. It’s difficult to have fun when you’re spending two hours with people who are severely damaged psychologically, who lash out at others quickly and loudly, who detest themselves utterly or who just aren’t very nice.

The laughs in “American Hustle” — and there are many, actually — come from unpleasant places. You’re laughing because some character has done or said something outrageously self-centered or delusional or downright nasty. They’re cold laughs of shock, not laughs of warmth.

“American Hustle” is based on the ABSCAM sting of the late ’70s and early ’80s in which a U.S. senator, six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a New Jersey state senator and several others were convicted on corruption charges for taking bribes. Christian Bale, with an awesomely bad haircut and puffy gut, plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con man who’s made a nice living scamming people with his partner and mistress, Sidney Prosser (Amy Adams). Caught by the FBI, he and Sidney are forced to work with the bureau to try to bring down other con artists. But pushed by a driven FBI agent who wants to be a star, the plan gets bigger and bigger until it involves members of Congress and the Mafia and becomes life-threatening.

Bradley Cooper, who seems to gravitate toward any role that skewers his Sexiest Man in the World title from 2011, plays Richie DiMaso, the FBI agent desperate to make a name for himself. Working in the white-collar crimes division, he wants to take down anyone he can, the bigger the better. But his ambition — which is manic and borderline psychotic — masks the pathetic black hole at his center, a sucking vortex of want and need that colors all his perceptions.

Adams is all cleavage, cleverness and conniving until she’s forced to come clean and reveal a scared, vulnerable girl from Albuquerque who just wants to protect herself and hold onto the man she loves.

As usual, Bale dives into his role, dialing up a New Jersey accent with lots of “dese” and “dohs.” Although he’s a scammer, Irving is actually kind of likable, a man who uses his desire to be liked to his advantage in his cons. Then he develops a real friendship (maybe his first ever) with a truly nice guy played by Jeremy Renner and is devastated when, in order to satisfy the FBI deal, he must destroy the man.

Lawrence is — again — mesmerizing. In the role of Rosalyn, Irving’s wife, she takes a smaller part and fearlessly embraces it, making it one of the most interesting roles in the movie. Brash, combative, vindictive, amazingly self-centered and none too bright, she’s the quintessential harpy of a wife, always berating her husband, questioning his brains, his manhood, his abilities.

But in a scene in which she and Sidney confront each other over Irving, she’s initially angry, defensive and self-assured. Suddenly, though, a single tear rolls down her face and the veneer cracks, revealing a fragile woman, truly heartbroken that her husband loves someone else.

“American Hustle” has already won the New York Film Critics award for best picture of the year, usually a precursor to the Oscars. Yet, while interesting and sometimes amusing, the film mostly makes you squirm as you spend two hours with people that you don’t really want to spend two hours with.

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