The film opens with the epigram, “Some of this actually happened.” With those simple words, writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) lets the audience sit back, relax and enjoy ‘American Hustle’ without any pretense. It is one of the best films of the year. The clever storyline and brilliant acting make it so much fun to watch. At first the film takes on a ‘Goodfellas’ tone with the use of voiceovers and quick zoom shots. Russell is a gifted filmmaker that uses these tricks sparingly and then wisely moves the story along at a brisk pace. The re-creation of the garish fashions and badly permed hair of the ‘70s will please audiences but it is Russell’s look at America’s desire to always reinvent itself that is so insightful.
The story is loosely based on the Abscam scandal where FBI agents used a fake Arab sheikh to bring down corrupt politicians on bribery charges in the late 1970s. As the film begins, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is piecing together his comb-over toupee with glue and a great deal of patience. Irving is a small-time conman and a complete schlub. He owns a chain of dry-cleaning businesses but it is his shady business dealings with non-existent loans that make him a very good living. Although he is a phony, he has confidence and style that attracts women typically out of his league. Always the consummate method actor, Bale’s physical transformation into the character is astonishing. He gained nearly 50 pounds for the role.
At a party, Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams). They find an immediate bond with their love of Duke Ellington and the art of grifting. They respect each other’s deceptive personalities and their need to reinvent themselves. They understand each other’s primal fears. Irving is afraid of being outwitted and Sydney of poverty. Sydney adopts a posh British accent and begins to help Irving with his loan scam. They convince desperate businessmen to put up $5,000 for a presumed $50,000 loan. One of the businessmen they try to swindle is an ambitious uncover FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who forces Irving and Sydney to help him with an elaborate sting operation in order for them to avoid jail time. DiMaso wants to bring down the corrupt New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) but the irony is that he is actually one of the most honest characters in the whole film.
Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). She is magnificent as his neurotic housewife. She literally steals every scene. As Irving describes her, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” There is a terrific and indulgent scene where she cleans around the house singing along to “Live and Let Die.” Russell’s stylized approach with these kinds of scenes including a decadent trip to New York discotheque ‘Studio 54’ perfectly sets the crass decade of the ‘70s. Other notable performances come from Jeremy Renner who is sensational as the politician with an uncanny resemblance to 50’s teen idol Bobby Darin. Robert De Niro is equally as good and menacing as mob boss Victor Tellegio. When Victor enters the scene, Irving soon realizes they may be over their heads. It’s difficult to choose favorites since the whole cast is superb.
The chemistry between Bale and Adams is palpable. They are exciting to watch. That’s the skill of Russell. He co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Singer. Not only is he able to get brilliant performances from his actors, Russell is extremely talented at writing layered and interesting female characters. This is precisely why actresses want to work with him. One thing is certain; you won’t feel conned when forking over your money to see ‘American Hustle.’ As Irving sums it up, “People believe what they want to believe." Don’t miss one of the most entertaining films of the year. Check out the official teaser from Sony Pictures http://youtu.be/BZietcDiu2s.