American Hustle

You watch the explosively entertaining, dramatically gripping American Hustle on a cinematic high. That’s David O. Russell for you. The up-for-anything director of Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook gets you drunk on movies, on their heat, their heart, their hum. American Hustle moves fast and talks faster, sometimes tripping on its ambitions, but it’s always vibrantly alive.

Before Russell got involved in the writing, Eric Warren Singer’s script, originally titled American Bullshit, had a docudrama feel. The core is still Abscam, the FBI sting operation, begun in 1978, that resulted in convictions of a U.S. senator and six congressmen. Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld mirrors scammer Mel Weinberg, recruited by an FBI agent, much like Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso, to nab politicians taking bribes involving a New Jersey hotel and casino. Jeremy Renner’s Carmine Polito could be Angelo Errichetti, the Camden, New Jersey, mayor who did time for corruption. Like Mel, Irv had a wife paralleling Jennifer Lawrence’s neglected Rosalyn, and a mistress and crime partner in the Brit style of Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser. The film says up front that “some of this actually happened,” but what really happens to these fictionalized people is inside Russell’s head.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. As ever, Russell propels the action with electrifying performances from a top-tier cast. The reliably amazing Bale, playing on the edge, where he likes it, uses a hilarious comb-over and an extra 40 pounds to play Irv, without skimping on interior conflict. And Cooper is dynamite, making Richie’s FBI ambitions as tightly wound as the hair he puts up in curlers. For these guys, surface makeovers can’t trump harsh reality. Irv has an adopted son tucked away on Long Island, along with an agoraphobic, sexpot wife (Lawrence) ready to throw him under the bus. Is Lawrence, 23, too young for the part? Maybe. But she’s a total blast, killer-funny and fierce, and her rendition of “Live and Let Die” is crazy-good.

But the woman who owns Irv’s heart is Sydney. And Adams, decked out in boob-baring Seventies fashions, owns the role. Whether putting on a Brit accent to fool a mark or showing the emotional toll of trying to fool herself, Adams scores a knockout. With four supporting-Oscar nominations (Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter, The Master), Adams fully earns the spotlight she inhabits here.

Renner, a newcomer to Russell movies, is sensational as the crooked mayor with a sincere desire to do good. Even the smaller roles pop and fizz – Louis C.K. is dryly, dazzlingly funny as Richie’s FBI boss who can’t stop telling ice-fishing stories; Michael Peña aces as a fed faking it as an Arab sheik; and an Oscar winner in a surprise cameo nails his big scene.

As for the exaggerated costumes, hair and makeup, it’s all part of Russell’s master plan to show characters reinventing themselves as a survival mechanism. Condescending, no. Compassionate, yes. Russell sees himself in these broken dreamers. For some, the silver linings in Russell’s movies represent a failure to embrace darkness. I see them as a humanist’s act of resistance. That’s why American Hustle ranks with the year’s best movies. It gets under your skin.

From The Archives Issue 1198: December 19, 2013