Directed by David O. Russell. Written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell. Produced by Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Charles Roven, Richard Suckle. Music by Danny Elfman. Photographed by Linus Sandgren. Edited by Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers. Production designed by Judy Becker. Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm.
What an odd, wild, deliriously wonderful thing American Hustle is. David O. Russell’s new movie is some sort of astonishing high-wire act. It’s a film that veers between quiet, sharply-observed insight and giddy, audacious farce with effortless skill. It doesn’t just take place in the 1970s; it oozes the period’s essence, both celebrating and kidding its world-weary, piled-sky-high tackiness. It pulls strands of political satire, romantic drama and zany black comedy into a tangled weave as messy and complex as the one on top of its hero’s head. And it creates characters so colorful and vivid that they are never anything less than themselves, which is ironic since the plot constantly calls upon them to impersonate others. It’s ambitious, bold, and carefree, and while it may also be sloppy and rough-around-the-edges, those very qualities are probably what make it some sort of screwy, gonzo masterpiece.
Is it based on a true story? Kind of. Certainly its characters are made caricatures with such humanity that that they are authentically fake. We know what we’re in for with an opening title card that states “Some of these things actually happened.” Heh heh heh. Cut to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), meticulously sculpting his hair into a rat’s nest comb over, and this moment ends up emblemizing Russell’s approach to every scene of American Hustle: bringing us right to the brink of mockery, and then pulling right back. Irving may indeed look absolutely ridiculous, but by the time he’s done we can’t help but think: Well, sure. What else is he gonna do?
What else, indeed. It’s 1978. Irving is a con man. He got his start drumming up business for his father’s glass company by throwing rocks through the neighboring shop windows. His partner, in many senses of the word, is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper posing as a British expat who sweetens every grift with counterfeit grace and class. The two of them met at a pool party where they shared a love of classic jazz, and now they have an office in a dubious section of Jersey where they swindle honest people out of their unwise investments.
When a hotshot FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) gets them over a barrel, he blackmails the couple into becoming pawns in an elaborate FBI sting operation catching crooked politicians accepting staggering pay-offs. Sydney, who knows which way the wind is blowing, is fed up with Irving’s spinelessness and starts promising her own type of pay-offs to Richie via a series of increasingly brazen propositions, while Irving tries to wrest control of the operation (and Sydney) away from Richie. Eyeing the whole thing from the sidelines is Irving’s hot-tempered, big-mouthed wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who knows exactly who Sydney is and hates her almost as much as she hates the idea of divorcing Irving and ruining their son’s notion of family.
The operation’s mark is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), mayor of Camden, a wormy man of the people who’s innocent enough to look good in a baby blue suit and crooked enough to willingly get into bed with Mafiosi and shady, fictitious foreign investors. The FBI sting hinges upon getting someone to impersonate an impressively wealthy Middle Eastern sheik, but they end up with a Mexican American agent (Michael Peña) who only knows a handful of Farsi phrases and ends up in the background of many shots staring into space quietly (the fact that this character is played by the talented Peña ends up being a joke on top of a joke). Back at the FBI, Richie’s boss (Louis C.K.) is a timid desk jockey who keeps reluctantly authorizing additional funds and is always on the verge of telling a meaningful anecdote that no one actually wants to hear. So it goes.
The FBI thing is real. It’s based on a famous 1970s FBI operation called Abscam, which ended up convicting senators, congressmen and councilmen up and down the Eastern seaboard. Whatever other kernels of truth the movie possesses, I should not say, because one of it true pleasures is the way it makes us constantly second-guess who is doing what, and why, and to whom. The film alternates between caper sequences, thriller elements and comic set-pieces that really must be seen to be believed, all done with a wicked smile suggesting there’s plenty more where that came from. One of my favorite moments is a trip to a 1970’s disco bathroom stall, which presents a scene I doubt that bathroom has ever seen before.
The movie’s construction is ingenious in that it’s constantly about characters who are plotting, and yet it’s not really about plot at all. Instead it’s a showcase for rich and delightful characters, each one striking a perfect balance between serious need and diabolical self-parody. Bale is at the top of his form as the slickster Irving – it’s not just the extra forty pounds of beer fat or the wiseguy accent, it’s his ineffable essence of Irving, who starts developing a conscience right around the time when everyone else seems to be losing theirs. Renner scores as the mewly-mouthed Polito, and Cooper continues his winning streak that he’s been on (Hangover 3 aside) – you can’t help but like his Richie even as he reveals more layers and shows just how horrible a guy he actually is. Lawrence is her typical delightful self as Rosalyn, making her so specifically alluring and equally infuriating that we understand both her and Irving instantly. Listen to the nimble way she uses New Jersey housewife logic to arrive at a self-serving point during one particularly fraught confrontation. It’s a symphony of working-class poetry, and not the only one on display.
The standout, however, is Adams, who is positively magnetic as the opportunistic Sydney, a woman who is almost all surfaces, but soon shows bursts of hidden depths that put everything into focus. Her moments between both Cooper and Bale are a heady cocktail of bawdy comedy and quietly revealing pathos. And what a great choice she makes in the careful construction of Sydney’s phony British accent, which is inconsistent in such specific ways that we understand why Richie overlooks them, in one of the film’s subtlest jokes. This is perhaps Adams’ very best performance ever in a motion picture.
In many ways, American Hustle plays like a tribute to the great crime epics of Martin Scorsese, not just because of its true story trappings and wild personalities; it also combines its visuals with ceaseless needle-drop pop hits to create sublime little moments. But it’s no knockoff Casino. It thrums with its own energy and ingenuity, and it genuinely loves its daffy, outsized characters, going so far as to put Bradley Cooper in pink hair rollers and yet never making it seem like he’s the butt of a joke. It’s virtuoso work from Russell, a born filmmaker who also co-scripted. He has an ear for great dialogue and also knows when to knock it off: pay attention to one wordless moment between Cooper and Adams that is like a tiny class in exquisite physical comedy.
For Russell, American Hustle is a return to his mad dog early filmmaking days (Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster, Spanking the Monkey). These are all terrific movies, not least because they’re unafraid to be bull-goose loony. After a stint in movie jail (egged on by his on-set unprofessional behavior), aborted projects and finally a pair of mainstream and mellow hits with The Fighter and Silver Lining Playbook (both good films to be sure), Russell returns to letting his freak flag fly, and it’s a joy to see. It has the same sense of finely-measured insanity that peppered his earlier works, which not only helps the comedy, but also reinforces the notion that anything can happen in American Hustle. Except maybe the truth, but who wants that? Certainly not me, not when there’s so much well-choreographed fun to be had. This may all seem like a clever scam, but one thing is ironclad in its believability: this is one of the best films of the year.