High expectations surrounded the release of the 2013 film "American Hustle." Not only was the movie the next highly anticipated film from controversial writer-director David O. Russell, who was Oscar-nominated for his films "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," but it starred an impressive cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence. Often movies with such impressive credentials and such a high level of anticipation end up letting down the audience. Fortunately, "American Hustle" managed to satisfy on many levels.
David O. Russell is similar to Oliver Stone in that he works with the same actors over and over and often draws from those actors the best performances of their career. Case in point is Christian Bale, whose strongest performance as an actor was, arguably, in Russell's film "The Fighter." Bale is almost unrecognizable in "American Hustle." He dares to hide his good looks behind a potbelly, disastrous 1970s outfits and the worst comb-over in the history of movies. All these physical elements, however, serve to bolster the strength and subtlety of his performance. He seems like a dumb, even laughable, palooka. By the end of the movie, however, as the twists and turns of the giant con that was Abscam unravel, the audience realizes how unexpectedly brilliant Bale's character is. Bale's superb performance has made every step along the way believable.
Also turning in remarkable performances are Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Both women have been so consistently brilliant on screen, with Lawrence winning the Academy Award for the 2012 Russell-directed "Silver Linings Playbook," that viewers' expectations for each of them are high indeed. In "American Hustle," both actresses deliver on those expectations. Lawrence takes a small role that could come across as silly or even pathetic. Instead, she lays claim the pivotal moment of the movie when she babbles her husband's secrets away to her Mob-connected suitor. Adams' work in the movie is subtle and delicate as she slips from one accent to another with ease. She is so riveting to watch that audience members find their eyes glued to her face rather than to her rather impressive cleavage, abundantly displayed in a series of perfectly tacky 1970s dresses.
Smaller supporting roles also stand out in the film, particularly Jeremy Renner as the mayor of Camden, N.J., and Louis CK as Cooper's FBI handler. Renner steps beyond the boundaries of his role by managing to tug the audience's heartstrings. He is probably the most sympathetic character in a movie full of people it would be all too easy to despise. Louis CK turns in a strong performance that also moves him beyond the expectations of an audience who just sees him as a funny guy who also spouts some wisdom. With this role, he becomes an actor to be taken seriously.
All these fine performances serve a story that is both funnier and more suspenseful than anyone expects. The Abscam scandal of the 1970s has long since faded into obscurity and is not obvious material for a movie. Russell and his co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer have, however, mined both the actual scandal and the time period and come up with rich results. The hair, the outrageous clothing, the casual drug use, the overall production design and the well-chosen music all place the audience right into the middle of the 1970s with no false moments. The plot twists are set up and paid off well. This allows the viewer both to follow the convoluted scam and to be shocked when various characters take matters into their own hands and twist the story in unexpected directions.
"American Hustle" is more than just the story of a true-life scam, however. As virtually every character in the movie spins lies about himself, it is sometimes hard to tell which characters actually believe their lies and which are still in control of the fantasy world they are trying to sell to everyone else. Moments in which the truth pokes through the self-absorbed fantasies and lies, such as when Cooper's FBI agent realizes he himself has been scammed or when Robert De Niro (in an uncredited but gripping scene) proves himself smarter than the rest of the hustlers, have an added power that forces the audience to sit back and ponder just how easy it is to get caught in false beliefs about oneself.
"American Hustle" absolutely exceeds expectations as a piece of sheer entertainment through the intellectual challenge of keeping up with all the plot twists and the humor, not to mention the delightfully tacky costuming. The fact that it also challenges the audience on a deeper level to confront questions of truth and authenticity lifts it to a higher level, making it one of the strongest movies of 2013.