Last year, a film about a top-secret 1979 CIA mission to rescue American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis took home the best picture Oscar. This year, David O. Russell looks to keep this trend alive with American Hustle, a stylish story about the top-secret 1978 FBI sting operation, ABSCAM.
David O. Russell has been an exciting filmmaker for several years now. His previous three films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle, have thrust Russell’s notoriety into a new echelon, however, by examining his previous quirky, clever, and unique films, Russell’s evolution can be clearly perceived. 1996’s Flirting With Disaster showed Russell’s quirky comedic tone. In what some consider his best film, 1999’s Three Kings showcased Russell’s clever style. Additionally, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees solidifies Russell’s unique writing. Now it seems he’s hit his stride as his previous three films represent all three of these talents repurposed and mixed with tremendous results.
Russell’s renaissance involves making films about memorable characters with his emerging cast of regular actors. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams have all been in at least two of his last three films, and all of them have received at least one Oscar nomination as a result – including two winners. While rumors swirl around Russell’s ease to work with, he is able to coax performances from his actors like none other, and American Hustle is no exception.
American Hustle opens against the gritty backdrop of 1978 New Jersey with a tone-setting title card that reads “Some of this actually happened.” We are immediately introduced to con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who runs a fledgling at best money lending scheme. That all changes when he meets the seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party. As a team, they bring Rosenfeld’s scheme to the next level attracting the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso uses his leverage on the two con-artists to coerce them to cooperate with him in a series of operations designed to entrap high ranking politicians and power brokers including New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
Now the story might seem complex enough as it is, but under the guise that “some of this actually happened,” Russell does this story one better with the introduction of Irving’s impulsive wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who could be the one who sends this whole operation crashing down.
Bale gives another transformative performance, this time with an added 60 pounds, a comb-over, and a Bronx accent. Adams continues her quest to become this generation’s Kevin Bacon by being in a movie with every relevant actor in existence. She also gives a very strong performance as the mysterious Sydney who is “hell-on-wheels” wrapping every man around her finger and perpetually driving Irving crazy in the process. Lawrence steals every scene she is in as Irving’s wildly capricious wife who won’t grant him a divorce and doesn’t know how to use a “science oven” either. Renner and Cooper are very effective at representing both sides of the law in this wildly outrageous story where the line between hero and villain is very, very thin.
Mayor Polito wants nothing more than to re-invent Atlantic City and make New Jersey a better place, but with his hands tied politically, he seeks the necessary capital from a seemingly interested Arab investor who is actually part of agent DiMaso’s operation. Thus, what makes American Hustle most intriguing is Russell’s conscientious effort to construct an irony where con-men and FBI agents are working together to ostensibly take down a criminal who may be the most honorable character in the film. American Hustle does have one element working against it, running time. At around 130 minutes, most of which is rapid dialogue, the film feels a bit bloated. There are many characters and they all have a lot to say. From an acting standpoint, it is quite impressive, but from an audience standpoint the film slags a bit through its second half.
There is plenty to like about American Hustle, far more than what’s not to like. For those looking for an amazingly well made and well acted film that does not include the brutality of slavery or the primal fear of being lost in space, this is your movie. B+
American Hustle is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes. Keep any eye out for some great and surprising faces in some of the supporting roles.