Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena and Jennifer Lawrence
Written By: David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer
Directed By: David O. Russell
American Hustle is a lot funnier than you might expect from a movie based on the real-life ABSCAM scandal of the 70’s, an FBI sting operation which led to the conviction of numerous senators and other politicians for taking bribes. Director/co-writer David O. Russell isn’t very interested in giving a factual or detailed account of these events but rather loosely using this subject matter to create a showpiece for his actors, all of whom portray wild caricatures. Firing on all cylinders – impressively stylistic direction from Russell, a consistently clever screenplay and the best ensemble acting in quite some time – American Hustle is most certainly one of the best films of the year.
Christian Bale stars as Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con man working alongside partner and lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). When the two are caught engaging in some illegal activity by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they are forced to work for DiMaso in helping him take down a web of corrupt politicians.
The characters are all morally ambiguous which leads to interesting dynamics between them and an ambivalence in who exactly we should be rooting for. Cooper’s DiMaso is a narcissitic loose-cannon who wants to entrap and take down politicians by means of bribery, entirely for his own professional gain. DiMaso doesn’t have a real passion in justice, his passion lies in moving up the ranks and proving that he’s “somebody”. Meanwhile, Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), is accepting said bribes in order to help rebuild Atlantic City with the hope to boost the economy and bring more jobs to the community. So what’s right and what’s wrong? Breaking the law with good intentions or upholding the law with bad intentions?
Irving and Sydney are con artists, but the type of movie con artists who we can’t help but love even though they scam innocent people for a living. It helps that they’re endearingly played by Bale and Adams. Bale proves once again to be the chameleon of actors – able to take on any role and make the character believable. As Irving, Bale sports a bad combover, a big beer belly and an authentic New York accent which accentuates his slimy ways. Adams (looking sexy as ever) plays against type and is in rare form as a seductive, manipulating femme fatale. Complications arise as to who’s conning who; DiMaso begins to fall in love with Sydney and she possibly has feelings for him too, only he’s under the impression that she’s a British woman named Edith Greensly. Irving may well be in love with Prosser but he just so happens to have a wife and child at home. All of the characters live in a murky gray area and as the films tagline informs us, “We all hustle to survive.”
Russell is very clearly influenced by the directorial style of Martin Scorsese – with narration from multiple characters, the piercing camera zooms & tracking shots and many scenes deliberately accentuated by a popping 70’s soundtrack – you might even accuse him of thievery. That is, if Russell didn’t do it so well himself. The comparisons to Goodfellas will be evident but Russell manages to infuse enough of his own signature moves which he initiated in films like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Speaking of those, Russell shrewdly combines the casts of both, with silver liner’s Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence & fighter’s Bale and Adams. There’s also a brilliant cameo from a certain known movie mafioso that’s best left a surprise. He’s a certain someone who also appeared in Silver Linings Playbook and Goodfellas. Ok fine, it’s Robert De Niro.
What really makes this film are the performances – the story is always entertaining as the plot twists pile up, but more often than not Russell takes detours in narrative in favor of acting showcases. Bale and Adams anchor the film and in any other movie they might be considered the eccentric ones if it weren’t for Cooper and Lawrence’s whacked out performances. Cooper’s manic act isn’t so different from his role in Silver Linings but with a little more sleaze added to the mental instability this time around. Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as Irving’s shrill, outlandish wife Rosalyn. At 22-years-old, Lawrence seems like an odd choice to play a character who’s supposed to be at least a full decade older, but she pulls off the part of 70’s New Jersey housewife so well that no attention is paid to her youthfulness. There’s also a dynamite appearance by comedian Louis C.K. as Cooper’s timid FBI superior and constant victim to Cooper’s verbal (and physical) abuse. Some of the funniest scenes in the film feature the two men going at it.
American Hustle isn’t so much a crime thriller with a steady stream of comic relief as much as it is a dark comedy with a criminal undertone. It’s the type of film that leaves you feeling thoroughly entertained – getting more than your money’s worth on a night out at the movies. This is the type of smart adult entertainment that’s also accessible enough to be appreciated by just about any moviegoer – pleasing the intellectual and less sophisticated with equal measure. David O. Russell and his extremely talented cast have crafted the type of engrossing and enthralling film that you’ll want to revisit for years to come.