David O. Russell has the innate gift of crafting genre films that transcend genre. He did it with Three Kings, he did it with The Fighter, he did it with Silver Linings Playbook, and he does it again with American Hustle. An electrifying and infectiously entertaining 70s-set tale of con artists, FBI agents, politicians, and the mob, Hustle is smarter, sexier and funnier than anything Russell’s made. Let’s put it this way: If 2013 were a high school prom, and all the movies were the students at it, then this movie would be the prom king.
Although much of American Hustle is loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation of the 1970s, Russell (who co-wrote the film with Eric Singer) makes it clear right off the bat that this isn’t going to be another fact-based re-telling of an undercover operation. That the film comes prefaced with a title card that states, “Some of this actually happened” should be telling. Instead, Russell uses the scandal as a canvas to paint an energetic romp beset with larger-than-life characters, absurd hairstyles, and a massive soundtrack. This in turn turns out to be a disguise for a biting exploration of survival and reinvention, all in pursuit of the elusive “American Dream.”
Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) are survivors. They’re also crooks who make their living selling fake paintings and conning desperate schmucks looking for quick loans. These aren’t necessarily big scams but it’s enough to keep them going. The fact that they share a bed and a desire to escape their hard beginnings only intensifies their magnetic partnership. But Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a manipulative, controlling sexpot who blackmails him by using their son and her knowledge of his illegal activities to keep him from leaving her. It’s no wonder he dubs her “the Picasso of passive aggressive karate.”
Things get messier when Irving and Sydney are busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a slimy FBI agent looking for a fast pass up the promotion ladder. Greedy, over-ambitious and vain, DiMaso is the type of guy who’d sell his mother if it meant getting a promotion. Sensing an opportunity, DiMaso forces the duo to corporate with him on a complex sting operation that would target an honest New Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and in-turn get him to snag a slew of government representatives for corruption. But when the mob, and worst of all, Rosalyn, also get entangled in the scheme, shit hits the fan.
To reveal more would be to spoil the fun of this intricately-scripted and unabashedly entertaining movie – most of which comes at the expense of watching the games these crazy people all try to play on one other. Russell, who has a knack of eliciting excellent performances from his actors, once again succeeds with an ensemble cast comprised mostly of previous collaborators. As Irving, Bale, nearly unrecognizable with his enormous gut and labyrinthine combover, adds another memorable character to his deep roster of iconic arsenal. Irving is a good man playing dress up as a bad guy to escape his rough life. He knows that he’s gotten this far in life because of his aversion for big risks. When he gets pulled into this maddening (and ever-expanding) scheme, Bale makes you sympathize with him, and he makes you want to see him escape it.
Adams, who has never played a character this risqué before, is even more impressive in a tricky role that requires her to be smart, shrewd, vulnerable, deceptive and sexy all at once. Sydney has played roles her entire life and through the course of this film, we see how she uses these “masks” to survive, juggling the affections of two men, yet still staying true to her goal of reinventing herself. In many ways, this is career-topping work from one of our best actresses.
Cooper, who’s quickly building a niche for playing smarmy charmers, once again proves why he’s one of the most promising leading men in Hollywood right now. He gets under the skin of DiMaso in ways a lesser actor would have had trouble with. DiMaso may be a slimy, power hungry hot-head with his priorities messed up but Cooper brings a smidgen of earnestness to the role that elevates him from being a flat-out villain. And then there’s Lawrence. If Silver Linings Playbook and The Hunger Games films have proven that she has a gift for drama, her work as the phony, controlling, deceptively dim-witted Rosalyn will enhance her reputation as a gifted comedienne. Some will argue that Rosalyn is a caricature but Lawrence injects pathos into the character, giving her weight and complexity. Both Jeremy Renner and Louie CK (playing DiMaso’s FBI put-upon boss) are terrific in supporting roles.
But in the end, this is Russell’s movie and he’s the star of the show. Staying true to the traits of his characters, Russell shoots American Hustle in the vein of filmmakers whose works have inspired him. Martin Scorsese in particular is the biggest inspiration. Like many of Scorsese’s works, Hustle features multiple point-of-view narrations, characters playing fast and loose, and a terrific pop soundtrack. As much as he owes Scorsese, Hustle is a film that only Russell could have made. The energetic pace, fluid always-moving camera, and the manic characters are all trademarks the filmmaker has been nurturing since his 1996 ensemble comedy Flirting with Disaster. American Hustle feels like the culmination of everything he’s made so far, and bares the mark of a filmmaker at the zenith of his game. I can't wait to see how he tops this one.