Off the Carpet: ‘American Hustle’ comes out to play

After weeks of audience testing, editors Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers futzing with the various tones director David O. Russell captures take-to-take during production, “American Hustle” finally came out to play Sunday as Sony Pictures unveiled the film to a swath of press and SAG nominating committee members, among others.

The reveal was a highly anticipated one, given Russell’s recent track record on the circuit: both “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” landed a slew of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also brought the 2013 film awards season one step closer to a complete picture, leaving just Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” to be seen. That, by the way, will happen within the week; by the time December arrives, the whole playing field will thankfully have been revealed.

For now, though, what’s the verdict on “American Hustle?” Is it a player or a pretender? Is this powerhouse ensemble that brings with it 17 Oscar nominations and four wins a formidable force?

Well, reviews of the film are embargoed until Dec. 4, though Sony certainly wants the word to get out as “social media postings” and “straight reporting” were expressly given the go ahead. Lest you think that translates to a loose interpretation of “reviews,” Russell and much of his cast and crew were on hand for a discussion after the screening. So there is something to report on here. Let’s start with that.

The participants along with Russell were stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Rohm, casting director Mary Vernieu, costume designer Michael Wilkinson and editor Jay Cassidy. The film is the result of a page one rewrite of Eric Singer’s much ballyhooed original screenplay “American Bullshit,” which was itself a look at the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970s and 1980s. But Russell has taken it in his own direction, jumping off from the scandal as a point of inspiration. To wit, as the opening title card says, “Some of this actually happened.” And as Russell said during the Q&A, “If I told you what was true, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Said Renner about his attraction to the project, “David got his hands on it and made something [already] good really, really great. I don’t know how someone writes so fast and so great.”

Indeed, it’s an incredible feat that Russell pulled this project off in the time that he did, working on the script while hitting the circuit with “Silver Linings Playbook” last year and getting his actors on board before even writing their parts. “This is sort of the third part of a reinvention I started with ‘The Fighter,'” the director said of his recent career trajectory, noting that he auditions for his actors more than the other way around and he was really excited to see some of the principals from his last two films in the roles he was carving out on the page in “American Hustle.”

Adams said Russell got her really excited about the strength of her character and that working with Christian Bale again in a very different capacity wasn’t something that came to mind in such terms because Bale is so stellar at becoming his characters. “You believe,” she said. “He’s in it. I was working with Dickey [in ‘The Fighter’] and Irving Rosenfeld [in ‘American Hustle’]. He’s such a hero to me.”

Speaking of Bale, the actor delivers another in a line of stellar performances, though it’s way more dialed down and internalized than the over-the-top look of the character might suggest. And one of his personal philosophies even made it into the script. “It’s not from the ears up, is it, mate,” he would say to Russell about his approach to acting. “It’s from the feet up.” That latter quip is a repeated refrain amongst the characters in “American Hustle,” regarding fully immersing in the con at hand.

The film’s true stand-outs, in my humble opinion, weren’t present. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are fantastic in the film. Lawrence in particular buzzes on the screen in such a way that the film – which I actually found pretty flat for the most part – really jumps to life when she’s on screen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her become the most recognized element of the cast: her biggest moment in the film got a mid-screening burst of applause from the largely SAG audience.

Cooper, meanwhile, drills down so much and seems to just really spark in his collaborations with Russell. As a major detractor of “Silver Linings Playbook,” I nevertheless thought he was exceptional in that film and he’s almost possessed here. It’s strange to say that Bale – who, again, is great – is a bit out-shined by two other actors, but I suppose it had to happen eventually. And an ensemble as bursting at the seams with talent as this is formidable for any actor to stand out against.

Adams, though, feels like a bit of a weak link. It’s not all her fault. The script seems to under-serve where she’s coming from considerably and she feels like a cypher as a result. She also sports a dodgy English accent (used as a cover by her character), but I suppose one could argue that it’s her character that’s having trouble with the accent rather than Adams (if that makes sense). And without digging too deep into things here, I’ll also just say that, as has been pretty obvious through set photos, official stills and trailers for a number of months, Michael Wilkinson’s costume design is a hugely vibrant element of this production. He could indeed be on track for his first-ever Oscar nomination.

The film itself frankly seems a bit undercut by its position in the awards season. It’s certainly entertaining in spurts, but it might have been better served as a fun caper film released in the spring instead of bringing with it the rally cry of “Oscar contender.” Admittedly, Russell’s track record as of late sort of sets it up for that anyway, but still. Sony made the right move getting “The Monuments Men” out of that ether. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been a wise decision here, too.

But what do I know? The film got a standing ovation earlier Sunday afternoon at a Santa Barbara Cinema Society screening and seemed to be a big hit with the audience I saw it with. Actors relish what’s going on with this cast, of course, so the Screen Actors Guild could well chalk it up in a number of categories, not least of which could be the ensemble field. And if so, that’ll just become more ammunition for the Oscar cause.

We’ll see how it lands. For now, the Contenders section has been freshly updated this week. And one last piece of the puzzle remains…

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