Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld
Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso
Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser
Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito
Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld
Robert De Niro as Victor Tellegio
Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen
Michael Peña as Paco Hernandez
Jack Huston as Pete Musane
Elisabeth Röhm as Dolly Polito
Erica McDermott as Addie Abrams
Directed by David O. Russell
A dark comedy with a dash of crime drama and a crime drama with a healthy sense of humor, “American Hustle” defies easy categorization as it offers up a twisty plot and some of the year’s best performances.
A heavily fictionalized version of the ABSCAM scandal of the ’70s and ’80s, “Hustle” delves into the web of corruption and greed surrounding the rebuilding of Atlantic City as a gambling Mecca, and the ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who plans to make his name off it on the back of a mid-level con man (Christian Bale), the mob and a fake Arabian sheik.
The sheik thing really happened.
Misdirection is to be expected in Rosenfeld and Prosser’s world, where the only art practiced more thoroughly than deception is self-deception and the only thing anyone wants is to find someone they can be themselves with. That sort of irony is the heart of Eric Singer and David O. Russell’s script which artfully hides a well-thought out character film inside of a heist movie. Filled with sharp dialogue and sharper corners, “Hustle” revels most in getting into the heads and hearts of the unfortunate trio trying to root out corruption in New Jersey. It does so with such brio that you rarely notice it until after the fact, or that most of the plot mechanics occur as a second thought. Though that could be because you were staring at the incredible ’70s coifs and weren’t paying attention. To quote the book of Stewart, it’s like a giant hair-shaped alien is devouring Jeremy Renner’s head.
What’s actually being consumed, however, isn’t money but America’s morals–transformed into the end of anecdote no one wants to hear–either through greed for money or greed for power. It’s all wrapped up in a whip-pan retro-hustle full of the kind of post-modern ’70s filmmaking touches Paul T. Anderson used to go nuts with. It makes for easily the most engaging film Russell has ever made, one that breezes by in the blink of an eye, in part at least because it has no quiet moments to slow the pace with. Even the quiet moments are done at full volume in the middle of a disco.
It would be over the top tone deaf–a bad impression of a De Palma film–if it weren’t so funny, hiding its depths under cover of comedy and giving its cast a tremendous range to play with. It’s hard to say who’s having the most fun, though I lay most of my money Cooper who just grows in narcissism and preciousness as the film goes on. Adams and Bale have the more difficult job of inhabiting more grown-up people playing at being children, individuals aware of their flaws but unable to escape from them; particularly Adams who has to do it all from inside a super V-neck disco nightmare outfit, no matter the scene. No one, however, is having more fun or more effect than Jennifer Lawrence who rips through the film like a tornado, terrifying all around her mostly because she is the only one not trying to be other than she is (due mainly to her complete lack of self-awareness).
Sure some of these touches might backfire: the humor and stylism could make it easy to cast “Hustle” aside as just a piece of fluff, a good time well-spent but with little to show for it in the end, especially since it doesn’t bother to make much of an easy emotional appeal. That would be a mistake. Like a good con, “American Hustle” is filled with layers and misdirection, each leading to another level further down and deeper in. Like a great con, at the bottom of all those layers there’s some actual truth waiting.
American Hustle opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 13 and expands nationwide on Friday, December 20.