A sensationally entertaining actors’ show—exactly what we expect from director David O. Russell—is the engine behind American Hustle, a smart piece of movie enjoyment so much fun to watch that it stands with Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street as a pair of bold, authoritatively directed con-men pictures delivered with so much brio they literally jump off the screen. Yet while Wolf is a scathing satire of corporate greed and lusty excess, Hustle is like one of Scorsese’s gentler character pictures, albeit one about about deception and survival. If it’s not thematically dense, it sure is likable as hell.
Russell, who has build a career on singular and off-center pictures since his 1994 indie Spanking the Monkey put him on the map, including Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, gives us what might be his best movie (or at least very close to The Fighter, his strongest drama), about a quartet of con artists on the take to survive.
Loosely based on the 1978 ABSCAM corruption sting that landed several prominent congressmen and local politicians in jail, American Hustle weaves a collection of fictional characters—and their various identities—into the mix, starring an overweight and combed over Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a two-bit dry cleaning proprietor who also happens to be a small-time crook, a talent he’s honed since his Bronx adolescence smashing windows to aid his father’s failing glass replacement business. Into his life walks naïve (or is she?) Arizona waif Sidney Prosser (Amy Adams), who leaves her big city Cosmo internship to join Irving’s con games, bilking broke clients with junk loans—he’s a maestro at laundering money and forged art, and Sidney quickly learns the tricks of the trade.
The pair fall instantly into infatuation and Sidney assumes a new identity, Lady Edith Greenley, a wealthy Brit with “connections” to supply their hapless clients with fake funds. Adams excels at the dual identity; for a bit we forget which character is the real one. Hand over fist cash keeps them flying high, save for Irving’s inconvenient personal life—he’s married to harpy Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, in a flashy, emotional turn) and legal father to her son, the glue in their disintegrating union.
Enter on-the-rise FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), complete with perm and polyester, who first busts the pair but then presents them with an out—help him make some higher busts (and a name for himself at the bureau) for suspected corruption, starting with a charismatic straight-arrow New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). In a movie that keeps surprising us, Irving and Carmine develop an inconveniently genuine friendship. But he’s still the mark.
So far we have two con men and an agent using them both to further his career. Enter Robert DeNiro as Miami mafia kingpin they attempt to sting with a phoney-baloney Arab sheik, amusingly played by Michael Pena, and we know we are in Scorsese-land—and that’s not a bad thing.
For all the entertaining reversals in the twisting plot, all four principal characters register as real and lived in, each given ample breathing room, Adams the headliner, performing with unusual emotional acuity. She’s always terrific but here she really shows her stuff as a simple girl turned grifter who loses perspective. Where do her devotions lie? To love, or the con? And if love, to whom? The apex of Sidney’s identity quagmire is a key scene with Cooper where both actors hurl into each other, all contradiction and revelation, as Sidney drops her guard, just once.
But special mention goes to Lawrence who walks away with the picture as an unlikely mafia pawn who can’t stop talking or crying or shouting—an impossibly glamorous housewife flirting with disaster, especially when she starts dating—and spilling secrets to—a new Mafioso boyfriend.
Russell, is complete command of his story, actors and milieu, delivers a captivating view of New York circa 70s including a terrific sequence set in Studio 54 where Lady Edith and agent DiMasio cut through the bullshit for one second—or do they?
In American Hustle’s world, only con men stay alive, good guys will compromise themselves and the women are smarter than the men by a long shot. Irving is nearly defeated by love, Richie by ambition and Carmine by his own naiveté.
“We all do what we have to, to survive,” says American Hustle. Indeed. Honor among thieves? I’ll never tell.