January is a time for Top 10 lists of the previous year, for catching up on holiday releases that you somehow never got around to seeing, and for recommending the only flick that's just edgy enough for one of your parents but not too risque for the other (scratch Wolf of Wall Street off that list). In any of these practices, you're bound to consider American Hustle, director David O. Russell's 2013 follow-up to Oscar contenders Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter. Surely, even if you've somehow put off seeing the film, you've happened upon some decidedly lavish advertisements. The very first thing you're likely to have noticed upon scanning the Hustle posters or watching the trailer: the hair. But a second glance might awaken quite an interesting realization about the movie's all-star cast... especially for fans of the superhero genre.
Not only have each of the main players taken high, if not top, billing in a major superhero release (or, in the case of Bradley Cooper, one on the way), but a good number of the supporting actors have history in the genre as well.
Superhero: Batman, natch. More synonymous with his DC character than any of the other American Hustle stars are with their respective comic book roles, Bale redesigned Bruce Wayne with filmmaker Christopher Nolan, graduating from the property after trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises.In American Hustle: Bale plays the schlubby but charismatic Irving Rosenfeld — a working class con artist who manages to work the magic of deceit with a strange air of earnestness.Powers in Common: Deception. Bruce Wayne spends his days cavorting, schmoozing, hobnobbing, elbow-rubbing, and other gerunds exclusive to the very rich. All the while, he's masking his true identity. Irv obscures his hidden intentions all throughout Hustle, living up to a Wayne-like standard of secrecy.
Superhero: Lois Lane, who, though not a superhero in the traditional sense, is the de facto sidekick of the most iconic comic book legend of all time (Superman) and a force to be reckoned with in 2013's DC release Man of Steel. Adams will return as Lane in the forthcoming Batman vs. Superman, opposite Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, respectively.In American Hustle: Adams plays Sydney Prosser, a.k.a. Lady Edith Greensley — a colossally powerful con artist at frequent odds with her own quest to forget who she really is.Powers in Common: Working people over. In Hustle Sydney/Edith is able to permeate the minds and hearts of everyone she meets. In Man of Steel, Lois Lane is the only Earthling (save maybe for a long deceased Jonathan Kent) who can get through to the lonely ol' Kryptonian Kal-El. Adams does have that charm.
Superhero: Rocket Raccoon. Technically Cooper hasn't played him yet, but he's slated to voice the animated live-wire in this summer's Marvel release Guardians of the Galaxy.In American Hustle: Cooper deals in Russell's special brand of emotional volatility with FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, prone to explosive bouts of "passion" (let's call it what it is — lunacy), such as fussing with partner/rival Irv's immaculately prepared toupee or beating the hell out of his own boss at the agency.Powers in Common: Unpredictability. Fans of the Guardians of the Galaxy comics recognize Rocket Raccoon as a bit of a wild card among the interplanetary heroes. You can easily say the same for DiMaso, whose hair-trigger temper gets him in a bit of (though not nearly enough) trouble.
Superhero: Mystique, the pupil-deficient X-Men villain. Lawrence plays Mystique and her alter ego, Raven Darkholme, in 2011's X-Men: First Class and the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past.In American Hustle: Lawrence plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irv's hot-tempered, "free spirit" wife who just can't quite seem to stop setting things on fire, and loves the smell of a good rotting nail polish.Powers in Common: Funnily enough, Rosalyn is one of the only people in this movie not employing some metaphorical sort of shape-shifting (Mystique's signature ability). But the character's propensity for interloping the communities of kingpin criminals and persuading them to do her bidding does ring true for the X-Men villain.
Superhero: Hawkeye, the Zeppo Marx of the Avengers Initiative.In American Hustle: Renner plays good-hearted politician (go figure) Carmine Polito, who bends the law in order to afford his New Jersey community the funds it needs to thrive.Powers in Common: They're both straight-shooters!
It's not only the central five who have superheroic roots. Renner's screen wife Elisabeth Röhm was a recurring player on the fourth season of NBC's Heroes. Hustle mafioso Jack Huston had a role in the sci-fi epic Outlander. Cooper's FBI boss Louis C.K. wrote and directed Pootie Tang (it's kind of a superhero movie...). And Michael Peña has gone on record saying he'd like to work with Robert Rodriguez to develop a Mexican superhero flick. As you can see, Russell's movie runs deep with super powered blood... and the costumes are flashier than your standard cape-and-tights get-up to boot.
American Hustle is now open in theaters everywhere.
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The opening scene of American Hustle — a loud, loquacious, upper-fueled romp through the avenues of high stakes swindling — plays somewhat like a Buster Keaton short. We watch a schlubby Christian Bale fumble (with as much delicacy as someone can, in fact, fumble) with a greasy combover and a dime store toupee, laughing at the small scale physical comedy and learning more than you'd expect about Bale's con man character Irving Rosenfeld before we even meet him or hear him speak.
But there is nary a silent moment in the two-and-half hours to follow. Its people speak in explosions. The passions are dialed all the way up between Irv, his accomplice and girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the venemous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who rangles the pair into the biggest heist of their career. There's no tranquility in the waters of their high-stakes operation to take down a New Jersey mayor, the Italian mob, and quite possibly a few of the dirtier suits in Congress. When things proceed like clockwork, we're talking diving pendulums and cuckoo birds darting from every crevice. Naturally, it's all the more fun when things go awry.
And, of course they do. It wouldn't be a heist movie without a few cogs springing loose. But the beauty of American Hustle is in its undoing. From start to finish, Irv and Sydney are pros at the game. They leave no stone unturned in pulling the wool over the eyes of every deadbeat, mafioso, and active senator that finds his unlucky way into their eyeline. Even the misguided improvisations of Cooper's control freak lawman don't serve to uproot the plans from their course. We don't suffer through a dropping of their guard or an overlooking of important details. Everything that goes wrong in this movie is embedded in character.
The follies, screw-ups, and mutinies are all emotionally charged, inspired by romantic rivalry, ego, flights of affection, and the ribald distate that so many of these people have for each other. Everything in this big, flashy, high-stakes movie is personal. It's a toxic, burning love/hate/envy/longing/attraction/friendship/enmity between every conceivable pairing in this dynamic cast of rich, strong, uproarious characters that fuels the movie and drags down the scheme at its center.
And just about everyone we meet is dragged into the maniacal nucleus by the arms of anxious passion. Irv's spitfire wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) outranks the lot of her company in the screws-loose department, stirring the pot of her unfaithful husband's business dealings as soon as she crosses the threshold into his world. The psychopathically dutiful Richie (Cooper) sees anyone who tries to temper his occupational obsessions as the enemy, even his pragmatic Midwesterner boss (Louis C.K.). And at the head of the race is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), unaware of his place in this tremendous game but coursing at top speeds on an engine of his democratic heart nonetheless. The characters are all operating at 11, and most of the actors are able to keep up.
As Irv, a uniquely undesirable Bale is a laugh every minute. We enter this world through him — a world of accessible lies, of rough-and-tumble New York streets, of Long Island parties, of Duke Ellington, of hairpieces, of dry cleaners, of only conning the men you can stomach the idea of laying to waste — and have a terrific time walking in his footsteps. Always just out of reach is Adams as Sydney, who cons herself just as often as she does Richie, Irv, and the poor saps who fall for her seductive act. Bale and Adams are the standouts of the cast — playing their hearts on their sleeves and tucked away tightly, respectively — so it's good fortune that most of our time is spent with one or the other.
The power players from director David O. Russell's last effort, Cooper and Lawrence, shine a bit dimmer here — Cooper plays Richie as petulant, misguided, and teetering on the edge, but he's undercooked beside the far meatier material presented by Bale and Adams. Lawrence, while not without her moments, never seems to commit altogether to the loon that is Rosalyn, alternating between too reserved and too outlandish to really make the character feel like somebody. But the biggest surprise of the lot might be Renner, who has more fun as his Jersey boy Carmine than he ever has onscreen. But in earnest, some credit goes to the hair.
It's the electricity of American Hustle that keeps its long narrative from dragging. We have fun with the characters, the performances, and the colorful world itself. The movie never insists that we feel anything beyond that, but offers a few bites of some authentic empathy for Irv and his kind nonetheless. So we can dip into the bustling character work that Bale and Adams are mastering, Cooper is handling, and Lawrence is just falling shy of delivering on, but we're free to latch onto the life preserver of this movie's output of comedy. There's so much to laugh at in American Hustle, and some wonderfully molded characters to do all your laughing with.
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