David O. Russell brings a certain swagger to his movies. He loves machine gun fast dialogue, interesting and complex characters, and plots that don’t always show humans acting appropriately. All the while, an absorbing soundtrack and relentless close-up camera angles that keep the focus on the actors, suck the audience into the world of his stories. “American Hustle”, which roughly follows the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s does all of this and more. Returning to an extraordinary cast of actors he has already worked with (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams), this could very well be Russell’s best work of his career.
Having worked with Christian Bale in a supporting capacity in 2010’s “The Fighter,” Russell gives the British actor the protagonist role this time around. Bale, who is no stranger to the art of weight loss and gain, reportedly beefed up 60 pounds to play the role of conman Irving Rosenfeld. The audience doesn’t have to wait long to see what this type of transformation looks like, as Russell opens the film with a detailed sequence of Irving putting together his “elaborate” comb-over. The character is shirtless, and Bale’s added girth protrudes well beyond his waistline. This is the second amazing plunge Bale has taken as an actor this year, along with last week’s release of “Out of the Furnace.” These two roles couldn’t be any more different from one another, but that just shows how much range the actor has.
The audience soon finds out that life hasn’t smiled very often on Irving. He is a lifelong conman from the mean streets of New York City. Owning a series of drycleaners, the hustler’s real occupation is swindling money from saps using a Ponzi scheme in a time well before Bernie Madoff. With his tinted thick-rimmed glasses and typically brown suit, Irving looks more like a big badger than a scheming genius. Looks, as the saying goes, can be deceiving.
When the man is introduced to Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), he thinks he has died and gone to heaven. Sydney is a fellow con, and quickly adopts a British accent to play a UK expatriate who claims to have insider connections to the Bank of England. Adams, who was born in Italy, but raised in Colorado, uses this faux British accent for the majority of the movie. It’s excellent and so is her palpable chemistry with Bale. Together, the pair create a nice little life for themselves as two crooks profiting off of other people’s money.
But like any great hustler, Irving leaves out the fact that he is already married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has adopted her son. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer (The International) mine this complex love triangle time and time again. Irving, who can figure out what makes people tick, is somehow helpless against Rosalyn’s unrelenting manipulation. Lawrence, who is barely 23 years old, is thoroughly convincing and enjoyable in the role. Her erratic behavior steals the show even more than in her Oscar-winning turn in “Silver Linings” last year. The talented actress is given less screen time this time around, however, so a repeat Academy Award win might prove to be out of her reach.
Everything becomes even trickier after FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts Irving and Sydney. On the outside, Richie is an attractive alpha male — even with his exceedingly 1970s curly hairstyle. On the inside, though, the character is a live-at-home mama’s boy with anger issues. Cooper manages both of these conflicting internal and external characterizations equally well. The result keeps the audience questioning how sane the FBI agent really is. Richie also becomes the perfect romantic rebound for Sydney, who is still upset about finding out that Irving is already married. That’s right; there are two love triangles in the same movie. Sadly, poor Irving is at the center of both of them.
Richie sees an opportunity to rise to fame with Irving and Sydney, and enlists the two, in exchange for their freedom, to work for the bureau. Their first target becomes the straight-arrow New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Renner’s performance is probably the tamest of the bunch, but that’s because Carmine Polite is simply a good guy coaxed into a bad situation.
There is plenty going on in “American Hustle’s” story, yet as the plot zips from character to character, flashback to fast-forward, the pacing of the plot never hits any bumps. The script is seamless, fluid and nothing short of impressive.
Writer/director David O. Russell’s adventure is nothing short of a masterpiece. There is a living, beating heart behind every scene, line of dialogue, and minute of action. All the while, Russell captures every moment with style and grace, which puts him among the most elite talents working in Hollywood today. Yet, Russell isn’t the only one working at full force. Everyone captured on screen, especially the quartet of talented leads Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence, don’t simple play their characters; they embody them.
After being snubbed out of two Oscars last year for “Silver Linings Playbook,” will the Academy finally recognize the filmmaker as being the auteur he truly is? I surely hope so.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
By David Morris