Few things show off a filmmaker's skill level better than their ability to do a 180 turn with their work.
Loosely telling the story of the FBI ABSCAM operation, "American Hustle" stars Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a balding crook who works with his fiery associate Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to defraud the most desperate of their money and valuables.
It's through a misstep in these illegal activities that the duo becomes entangled with an equally desperate FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The duo offers to help DiMaso in exchange for their exoneration. Thus begins a twisted web of greed, deception and general nostalgic chaos as the crew attempts to take down multiple politicians including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner.)
It's in this web of chaos we meet Irving's stay-at-home mess of a wife Rosalyn played by the incomparable Jennifer Lawrence. While "American Hustle" is full of great performances, Lawrence steals the show in every scene she's in. She radiates on the screen despite the attempts to make her look trashy with skimpy outfits and pasty makeup and the comedic nature of her role makes the performance an easy sell.
While Lawrence's performance will most likely sick with viewers the most, Bale's performance should not go unappreciated. A far cry from the sexy role as Batman, Bale's role as Irving leaves him with an elaborate and gross comb-over as well as a bulging gut that is inarguably unattractive.
To pull of a role that demands confidence and suave with such distracting appearance issues is the opposite of the easy sell of Lawrence's role yet Bale succeeds with flying colors.
Unable to reach Lawrence and Bale's performance levels are Adams and Cooper who give fine performances but nothing outside of their established comfort level. Adams plays best when she's at her sexiest in the film and yet her on screen fire pales in comparison to that of Lawrence.
What really helps "American Hustle" stand out as one of the year's best films is O. Russell's perseverance and relentlessness with his late 70's vision and setting. Everything from the shot styles to the opening production titles screams disco-era and only feels hokey at the right times which gives the film its desired and necessary nostalgia.
The comparisons "American Hustle" will get to the works of Martin Scorsese are inevitable but not fair. If anything, O. Russell's work is a fun tribute to the mob thrillers of Scorsese's past and should not be slung dirt at it for its similarities. In fact, O. Russell deserves praise for pulling off such a powerful thriller so soon after completing what was a fairly safe and predictable yet entertaining "Silver Linings Playbook."
With a likely second consecutive Academy Award nomination for Best Picture on the way, the pressure will surely be on O. Russell's shoulders for his next project. The film world will just have to wait for now.
"American Hustle" opens in theaters across Austin on December 20.