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Movie Review: 'American Hustle'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- David O. Russell does the hustle.

Russell puts in a bid for his third best-director Oscar nomination in a row with the puckish period piece, American Hustle, which reunites him with the stars of his last two triumphs, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.

And, y'know what?  The directorial hat trick is not out of the question.

Bradley Cooper (Oscar-nominated for Playbook), Jennifer Lawrence (an Oscar winner for Playbook), Christian Bale (an Oscar winner for Fighter), Amy Adams (Oscar-nominated for Fighter), and even cameoing Robert De Niro (Oscar-nominated for Playbook) are all back hustling for Russell.

(3 stars out of 4)

And their participation buoys the material.

Set in New Jersey in 1978, American Hustle is loosely based on a true story.  A con artist (Bale) with both a neglected wife (Lawrence) and a fetching partner in crime (Adams) is caught and thus forced to work with an FBI agent (Cooper) to bring down a few con men, mobsters, and politicians, including the mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner), who hopes to rebuild Atlantic City.

But how? Just who's conning whom? And who, if anybody, isn't?

If the narrative sounds vaguely familiar, it's because this is a fictitious take on the infamous entrapment convention known as "Abscam," a federal investigation into political corruption that brought about the conviction of a US senator and five congressmen.

As usual, director Russell lets the plot take a back seat to the array of colorful characters and problematic relationships, which is why canny casting is so crucial, why the David O. Russell Ready-for-Prime-Time Repertory is so helpful, and why the movie can open with a title card that reads: "Some of this actually happened."

Loosely based, indeed.

Originally titled American Bullbleep (and I don't mean "bleep"), the screenplay by Eric Warren Singer and Russell bathes in the excesses of the era -– the clothes, the hair, the shades, the dances.

But it's the characters you'll remember and groove on, as they used to say:  Bale's motormouth, Lawrence's dynamo, Adams' seductress, Cooper's puppetmaster -– a crew of love-me-or-hate-me-but-don't-ignore-me live-action cartoons.

Russell employs multiple voiceovers to accommodate a number of perspectives, and he gives his principal cast a bit too much rope, which is why none of them matches the naturalness or impact of his or her last Russell-guided performance.

Still, working at this heady level of screen presence and comedic charisma, this everyone's-a-hustler six pack is fun to watch whether you're believing them or not.

Which, come to think of it, fits the theme of the film itself like a tight t-shirt.

Character-driven storyteller Russell gives his film a manic, farcical energy that keeps it at arm's length from realism but that engrosses to a surprising degree, perhaps because it's the kind of nostalgic historical exercise that can't help but comment on contemporary values.

And what unites the characters and runs through the film like a tsunami is the level of unbridled greed.  Whatever costume each wears, whatever surface agenda each articulates, whatever lie each tells, just below the surface looms the big "G."

So we'll scam 3 stars out of 4 for American Hustle, an entertaining black comedy in which David O. Russell rustles up his overachieving alumni -- and they deliver.

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