Let’s take a look at the films up for Best Picture Oscar, shall we? Let’s out which of the nine films really is the best, which one if the most worthy of your praise, and which one will probably win the statue come March. Those three things may not be the same thing.
David O. Russell’s American Hustle may perhaps be considered the third film in the director’s unofficial trilogy of genre experiments. Russell started his career with somewhat oblique and definitely stylish comedies like Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, and exploded in earnest with his overrated wartime drama Three Kings (which is far shoddier and more meaninglessly stylized than you even remember). He took a playful detour into near-absurdism with his I Heart Huckabees, which is appealing in a cult way – it’s not often that we get a film as wonderfully weird.
Ever since The Fighter, however, Russell seems to have finally hit his stride, taking familiar – even clichéd – genres and populating them with his now-familiar brand of broad-yet-believable white trash and/or amusingly criminal characters. He then casts talented actors, squeezes great performances from them, and, in so doing, elevates the genre into something natural and fun. The Fighter was a sports movie through-and-through. Silver Linings Playbook was a romantic comedy that banked on dance movie clichés and mutual healing tropes lifted from flicks like As Good as it Gets. And now the joyously slippery American Hustle applies the same formula to con artist movies, complete with a long-con, a late movie double-cross, and characters whose honesty you can never be entirely too sure of. Of the “new Russell” era, I would say American Hustle is the best.
American Hustle is a firecracker of a movie. Clipped, fiery, and chatty, it’s the kind of film that thrills you through mere dialogue and character. The performances are so strong, so idiosyncratic, so carefully modulated, you find yourself falling in love with people who are, essentially, liars, idiots, ditzes, and scumbags. The people are so appealing and the character study so rich, in fact, that you forgive the characters their many transgressions just as much as you forgive Russell for assembling what is – on paper at least – a pretty basic, and oftentimes predictable plot.
To do my critical due diligence, the plot is thus: Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con man in 1970s Noo Joisey who falls in with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) a would-be British con woman. The two of them, in their gleeful malfeasance, are apprehended by an ambitious Fed (Bradley Cooper), who forces them to engage in a con to expose greater malfeasance in government (represented by Jeremy Renner as the mayor of Camden, NJ). Irving is married to (but does not love or live with) a pretty blonde idiot named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who does nothing but browbeat him and occasionally and accidentally set her house on fire. Charm ensues.
All of the lead actors (with the exception of Jeremy Renner) have been nominated for Academy Awards this year, and, frankly, they all deserve it. Christian Bale should perhaps win for playing Irving, a man with the most nightmarish leisure suits and comb-over this side of an actual 1970s discotheque, as he makes this slimy, slimy character into an amusingly pathetic sad sack that, well, you might actually consider going to bed with. I’m also fairly positive that Lawrence will indeed win, as Rosalyn is the kind of emotionally complex simpleton that takes a great talent to nail. Adams is fun as The Woman with the Intermittent Accent, although I think she’s being nominated more for her awesome ’70s hair and revealing dresses than anything.
What are American Hustle’s chances for winning Best Picture? I’d say pretty good. It’s not the front-runner by any means, but it has the biggest head of steam, in terms of audience enthusiasm, compared to any of the other movies. It’s also the most fun of the Best Picture nominees, and is far easier to watch than the gorgeous torture-fest of 12 Years a Slave, or the steely struggles of Captain Phillips.
Odds to win: 5:1.