(2013)4Perry Seibert"Some of this actually happened," a title card cheekily informs us at the beginning of David O. Russell's crime comedy American Hustle, and so begins a wild and most entertaining tale of duplicity and deceit -- a movie that recalls the Coen brothers' Fargo and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas in its crackling energy, the freedom it feels to embroider on real life, and the joy it takes in presenting singular and outlandish characters.
The lively opening introduces us to the major players: There's Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a pudgy, balding owner of dry-cleaning businesses and a born con man with a motormouth and the persuasive skills of a cult leader; his girlfriend and partner Sydney (Amy Adams); and ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). As Irving and Richie trade insults, each trying to impress Sydney, they prepare to pass a bribe to Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a prominent New Jersey mayor. When the payoff goes awry, we learn in flashback how these people got to this point.
It turns out that Irving and Sydney are quite in love, and spent a few years scamming marks out of thousands of dollars as Sydney played the part of a British aristocrat with connections to high-powered banking interests in London. One day they try to con Richie, who promptly busts the duo and demands that they work for a sting operation involving capturing politicians taking bribes.
The "hustle" of the title is a deft pun that recalls discos, the act of scamming people, and, most importantly for Russell, the idea of doing whatever you need to do to survive. It becomes clear that Irving hustles partly to protect his young adopted son, whose boozy, extroverted, borderline-sociopathic biological mother Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) also happens to be his wife. For all his skills as a con man, Irving is entirely enthralled by her incessant manipulations. This is perhaps best explained by the old adage that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, or by the fact that, as embodied by Jennifer Lawrence, Rosalyn is just smoking hot.
There is much to enjoy in the twisty story line cooked up by Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer, but the ceaseless pleasure of American Hustle lies in watching Bale, Adams, Cooper, and Lawrence go out on a limb with characters that would be cartoonish if they weren't skilled enough to keep them grounded in genuine emotional truths. Christian Bale has never been an actor who smiles easily (his propensity for dourness made him the ideal Batman for Christopher Nolan), but as the gargantuanly charismatic Irving he gives his most fun performance since he embodied Bret Easton Ellis' homicidal maniac Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. He's warm in a way Bale doesn't often allow himself to be -- it's as if playing a character with a prominent potbelly and a comb-over as elaborate as the movie's plot made him realize that Irving doesn't brood but instead fearlessly puts himself out into the world.
He's matched by Amy Adams, who is really playing two parts in the film: Sydney and the British character she invents in order to help with the scam. Those very obvious alternate personalities make her character the most prominent example of one of the movie's major themes -- that people are always pretending to be someone else in order to get what they want. That's tough to pull off without seeming more like a construction than a character, but Adams handles this tricky role with award-worthy skill. She's sexy -- something underscored constantly by Michael Wilkinson's inspired and period-appropriate costumes -- and strong. Adams keeps us guessing as to the character's true feelings for Irving and Richie because she makes Sydney's ability to snap quickly and completely into another persona thoroughly believable.
As good as all of the actors are at playing outlandishly colorful people, everything gets even more vibrant when Jennifer Lawrence's Rosalyn is onscreen. She is the straw that stirs this already potent drink, getting laughs in unexpected ways -- she puts a spin on a classic Bond theme that will forever alter what you see in your mind when you hear it -- and keeping us on our toes exactly as she does with Irving, whom she knows she has wrapped around her finger. David O. Russell directed the 23-year-old actress to an Oscar in Silver Linings Playbook, a movie that served up a showstopping scene at the end of act two that let Lawrence deliver a monologue full of humor and attitude. He's constructed a similar moment this time around involving a hilarious speech she gives Bale that kicks the film's surprising final act into gear. It's another chance for Lawrence to show off her preternatural charisma, and if Russell is smart he should just continue writing scenes like this for her for as long as she agrees to keep coming back.
American Hustle proves that Silver Linings Playbook was no fluke and that David O. Russell has become one of the most dependable filmmakers alive when it comes to fashioning smart, funny, and grandly entertaining movies. He's learned how to hustle in a Hollywood system he seemed ill-suited to play along with in the early years of his career, and like Irving and Sydney, he's focused on protecting what he cares about most. Thankfully, in contrast to his characters here, he's not in it primarily for material gain, but for artistic vision. American Hustle may be full of people faking, but Russell is the real deal.
Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Amy Adams star in director David O. Russell's fictional period crime drama about a reckless FBI agent who recruits a con man and his alluring partner into a scheme to ensnare corrupt politicians and gangsters. Smooth-talking Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is a hustler of the highest order. No mark is off limits for Rosenfeld, especially when his crafty partner Sydney Prosser (Adams) is by his side. When renegade FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) thrusts the deceptive duo into the treacherous world of New Jersey power players and underworld heavies, the thrill of the hunt grows too strong to resist. Meanwhile, New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) gets caught in the middle, and Rosenfeld's capricious wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) holds more power than anyone could imagine. Louis C.K. and Jack Huston costar.