One very neat trick in David O. Russell’s new film, “American Hustle,” is that it remains entertaining–funny, even–as the stakes soar to dizzying heights.
A loose retelling of the ABSCAM story (it even starts with a title card that says “Some of these things actually happened”), “American Hustle” begins with another interesting feat, as it tries to make us forget that Christian Bale is Batman. As the schlubby, worn down con man Irving Rosenfeld, Bale meticulously applies his toupee. It’s a telling moment for the character, a man who is both proud and ashamed, crippled by doubt and possessing incredible confidence.
He is being pushed and prodded by Richie DiMaso (a permed Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent using Irving’s talents to make big corruption cases. His leverage is Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser, Rosenfeld’s mistress, and business partner.
The plot is actually pretty simple. Rosenfeld and Prosser are trying to get free of the FBI’s grasp. DiMaso is trying to make a name for himself. The eventual targets of their sting are various Congressmen and New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito played ably and with great hair by Jeremy Renner.
And, like a runaway bulldozer, there is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn. In a role that could have fallen flat, Lawrence is a force of nature. She’s wildly unpredictable, clearly crazy, and unforgettable. Her desperation to hold onto her husband, or at least find a safe landing spot after he leaves, is the engine that powers the film’s second half.
What sets “American Hustle” apart from so many scam artist films is the depth and the realism. Personally, I think the “Ocean’s” films are entertaining and well made, but they’re the very cute, very slick “I had it all figured out from the beginning” variety of movies. That’s fine. I love those. But this is an actor’s film. This is about letting actors tell you a story that goes much deeper than the words on the page.
While less showy than his “Silver Linings Playbook” co-star, Cooper brings dangerous energy to his portrayal of DiMaso. Though he’s working for the FBI, it’s clear he’s enamored with the world of scam artists and throughout the film, he is often seen fooling himself. The manic patter he displays in the interrogation room with Adams is exciting and funny, but it’s clear he means business.
Cooper also seems to have a lot of fun showing off his character’s cocaine addiction without ever explicitly revealing it. Lots of little details are in place and all of them make perfect sense for what he’s doing.
As Prosser/Lady Greenlee, Adams is eye-catching and troubled. Again, this is where “American Hustle” diverges from other con-man movies. She doesn’t have all the answers. She’s desperate for a way out and, rather than trust the man she claims to trust implicitly, she begins finding her own way with DiMaso.
I don’t yell at movie screens, but there were several times during this one where I wanted to grab each of the characters by the shoulders and say, “No, you’re screwing this whole thing up!” That you begin to care about each of them sneaks up on you and suddenly you’re very invested in a happy ending that might very well not show up.
Bale’s quiet performance as Rosenfeld can’t be overlooked, though it’s much less flashy than his co-stars. He might be spinning lies, but Irving is probably one of three or four people on screen who have their feet firmly planted in reality. He’s not happy to be doing work for the FBI, but he’s trying to do it right. That becomes increasingly difficult to do with both Prosser and DiMaso going rogue.
Another victim of DiMaso is his boss, played by a beaten (both figuratively and literally) Louis CK. He’s clearly trying to tame a wild horse and finding that no one is interested in helping. Even though the role is played pretty straight, Louis’s eyes bring a lot of humor to his scenes.
And give credit to Renner, who breaks hearts as Polito. He really is just trying to do the right thing, albeit in the wrong way; and his intense and sudden friendship with Irving makes the film both enjoyable and unbearable to watch.
The direction and cinematography are wonderful. The film stays visually interesting without ever making the story hard to follow. Russell opens up the lens and lets the actors tell the story, but he finds amazing details to focus on in order to drive his point home.
“American Hustle” is a joy to watch, which you can’t say for all award-winning films. (Oscars seem almost certain for this one.) I give it 9 of 10 unbilled Robert De Niro smile-frowns.
“American Hustle” is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and brief violence.