David O. Russell's swingin' 1970s ode to greed and corruption American Hustle tells you right up front, hey "Some of this actually happened". It's the one kernel of honesty in a film that's swimming with sharks, but at the same time there's the subtle admission that you're going to be conned, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. Russell, who has found ways to have a good time with everything from the Iraq War to boxing to mental illness, has crafted one of the most enjoyable movies of the year, and certainly being swindled has never been this much fun.
Russell is no moron; he knows his skyrocketing success after The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook can be attributed as much to his cast as to himself, and he's smart enough to bring them back and turn them loose. Christian Bale transforms the most; chubby, Jersey-accented, and elaborately hairdo'ed as Irving Rosenfeld, a petty con man who has never really known a way of life that didn't involve scamming others. He's a survivor, or so he likes to call himself, and he finds his kindred spirit in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a woman with a great (and very fake) English accent. She wields it like a weapon, almost as effectively as she wields her oozing sexuality, and soon she and Irving are an inseparable pair, romantically and professionally. Russell is clearly enamored with the little oasis of relative calm Irving and Sydney find in one another, literally sweeping us through their courtship in a dizzying array of brassy jazz music (their mutual love of Duke Ellington's boisterous 'Jeep's Blues' says more about them than anything) and prances through the Manhattan streets. Their happiness comes at the expense of others, hustling fools out of $5,000 with a fairly simple loan scam that relies on the victim to basically trick himself.
The fun 'n games take a turn with the arrival of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper in another case of shocking stunt hairdo casting. How is Javier Bardem nowhere to be found in this movie? Catching her red-handed while Irving has the chance to skate free, Richie offers them total freedom if they help entrap corrupt power players looking to pad their bank accounts at the expense of the public. The film is based, extremely loosely, on the real-life Abscam scandal, an FBI plot that eventually took down a number of low-level politicians, but it's not remembered with any particular fondness due to the questionable lengths the government went to. That idea of governmental overreach is a small cog in the puzzle, as DiMaso eventually ups the ante by targeting well-meaning mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a decision that proves to be a very dangerous one.
Forget keeping track of the messy Abscam puzzle, which comes to include fake Arab sheiks and mafia big wigs; the most ruthless games being played are of the heart, with each new development spinning these screwed-up characters into wildly different directions so you never know who has the upper hand. DiMaso pulls the strings, sending Irving off to get in close with the mayor, while he and Sydney get close in a totally different way.
But this isn't just another love triangle of petty jealousies and broken hearts; we’ve seen that story before, especially with morally dubious characters like this that have serious trust issues. Jennifer Lawrence throws molten hot lava on the situation as Irving's unhinged, batty wife Rosalyn, with whom he shares an adopted son. When he's forced to bring her out on a double date with the mayor, Sydney is understandably pissed, sending her scurrying into DiMaso's arms, although he has his own marital issues that need sorting out. With the exception of the egotistical DiMaso, the rest of these characters are scrappers, prone to doing whatever they need to in order to get by. "Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, but you had to survive?” Irving asks at one point. And it's that toughness in the face of a constantly shifting emotional landscape that keeps American Hustle thrilling and the audience on its toes. Russell, who co-wrote the script with Eric Warren Singer, constantly reframes the power structure, and the film has a deftness to it that feels like it could go absolutely anywhere.
There's no shortage of talent in big and small roles that Russell has managed to put together, and it's a credit to him that he is always able to pull terrific, if largely over-the-top performances. While some have been quick to criticize Bale's performance, perhaps because it's such an easy target given the physical transformation he undergoes, he's completely convincing and strangely sympathetic as Irving. On the other end of the spectrum, DiMaso is a total douche and Cooper has a great deal of fun playing him as one. DiMaso is the worst kind of crook, who puts his own ambitions over others while pretending to do what's right and just.
But this is a film that belongs to the ladies, and it can be argued no director knows how to better utilize Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence better than Russell. Both women are on fire here, smoldering with sexual energy (bras must not be a thing in the '70s) that they use to engulf the men in their lives. In one of the finest performances she's ever given, Adams is flawless as Sydney, depicting her as someone who has been to the bottom and will do whatever it takes to never go back. She's not just some damsel stuck to the whims of two warring men; she's got her own schemes which prove to be the most central thing in this story that is kind of all over the map. Lawrence gets the most sizzle and the biggest laughs as Rosalyn, a self-centered user who drinks too much and always seems on the verge of either a breakdown or breaking out in dance. She does a little bit of both, actually, when she's not throwing Irving's plan into disarray by her mere presence. Others pop in for oversized cameos and all of them have a certain charm, whether it’s Robert De Niro as an infamous mobster (type-casting? Not really.) or Michael Pena as a Mexican posing as an Arab prince.
The version of the 1970s Russell fashions is an artifice in itself, a little indulgent and certainly more stylized than the era warrants, but it all fits for the world he's dropped these crazy characters into. The soundtrack is easily one of the year's finest, and surprises by not falling back on the usual period staples. There are too many angles being played for the story to hold together completely, and there's never any real sense of danger, but Russell deserves credit for not blowing things out of proportion when he easily could have. A few corners are cut to conveniently wrap up all that unnecessary Abscam stuff and get right to the emotional payoffs, which resonate more than many movies of this type usually deliver. Few movies had greater expectations than this one ever since Russell began putting it together, especially when it was dropped smack dab in the middle of awards season. But unlike all of the other movies out there grasping desperately for gold, American Hustle makes it look easy.