'American Hustle': Film Review
David O. Russell reunites with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in this '70s-set tale of con artists roped into a corruption crackdown, along with the director's new recruit Jeremy Renner.
In The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell hit a bracing mid-career groove in which his idiosyncratic stamp as a director injected distinctive rawness and emotional vitality into what in other hands might have been merely conventional movies. He continues on that roll of refreshing character-driven storytelling with the outrageously entertaining American Hustle, a twisty con-job chronicle that combines heightened dramatic stakes with playful humor, subversive sexiness and fabulous 1970s style. Fueled by invigorating performances from a zesty ensemble often cast against type, this looks like a winner for Sony.
Written by Eric Warren Singer and Russell, the film is a fictionalized account of the Abscam scandal, an East Coast FBI sting operation that went down in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It resulted in a number of public officials being convicted on corruption charges, including several congressmen and high-level political operatives.
As indicated by the opening tag, “Some of this actually happened,” Russell makes no claim of adhering to those events. He carries on exploring the affinity evident in his last two features for characters at difficult junctures working to reinvent themselves. What gives this film its teasing pleasure is that almost everyone, on both sides of the law, is to some extent an ambiguous hustler, promising one thing and delivering another, sometimes with multiple hidden agendas.
The vicarious enjoyment of being bad that American Hustle provides gives it a vague kinship with Goodfellas, while its buoyant narrative energy and disco-era setting recall Boogie Nights. Dexterously plotted and laced with choice dialogue, the film is a crime drama infused with the spirit of a caper comedy, its frisky insouciance at times not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake.
There’s a lot of great hair in this movie but none more transfixing than the carefully sculpted comb-over worn by Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), which we watch him construct in a process involving glue, a fake thatch and a thick coat of Elnett. That hilarious opening sequence also establishes the walking paradox of paunchy Irving, whose personal style seems at odds with a breezy confidence that allows him to scam just about anyone.
It’s precisely that quality that attracts Sydney (Amy Adams), a knockout former stripper from New Mexico, who likes to pass herself off as Lady Edith, a Brit with London banking connections. That alias comes in handy as the lovers lure patsies into a fake loan scheme, collecting five grand a pop. But Sydney/Edith makes a bad call when she reels in Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious Fed. He coerces Sydney and Irving into helping him nail some heavyweight white-collar targets, promising that four significant arrests will clear their slate.
Sydney wants to flee the country, but Irving remains too tied to his messed-up, manipulative wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whose son from a previous relationship he has adopted. When Sydney informs Irv that she intends to get close to Richie for insurance, she is acting out of jealousy as much as self-protection.
They identify a likely mark in Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor known as “the working man’s friend.” Frustrated at the difficulty of raising money to redevelop Atlantic City and eager to generate income and jobs for the state, Carmine gets pulled into a web of bribery and corruption, dragging other politicians in with him. Seed money from a fake Arab sheik (Michael Pena) serves as bait, also drawing the interest of Florida-based Mobsters looking to grow their gambling empire.
These are juicy, garrulous characters and Russell has lovingly contoured them to fit actors who have been lucky charms for him in his recent work. As well as Bale and Adams from The Fighter, and Cooper and Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook, another of that film’s alumni, Robert De Niro, turns up unbilled in an amusingly tense negotiation scene as a lieutenant of Meyer Lansky. New recruit Renner is a wonderful addition to this core group, doing his best work since The Hurt Locker.
Bale is outstanding, his commitment to the central role going far beyond the weight gain and slouchy posture. Irving is an inscrutable shyster for sure, but one with both a conscience (he balks at going after politicians while America is still hurting from the disillusionment of Watergate and Vietnam) and a complicated set of personal loyalties, acutely revealed when he establishes a genuine friendship with Carmine. This helps makes Irv, against all odds, someone in whom we find ourselves investing.
Russell has a knack for capturing the exhilarating moment in which the characters’ bonds are cemented – Irv and Carmine carousing to Tom Jones’ “Delilah” at the end of a boozy night out; Irv and Sydney dizzy in each other’s arms while the garment rack of a dry-cleaners store (one of his core legit businesses) whirls around them; Sydney and Richie boogieing on a dance-floor, with a nod to the film’s title in a step or two of the Hustle.
Sporting a ridiculous home perm and a Tony Manero wardrobe, Cooper has never been funnier or more manic. Motor-mouth Richie’s anxiousness to avoid being trapped behind a desk leads him to all kinds of unwise decisions, making him as shady as Irv or maybe more so. And Renner, with a magnificent pompadour, gives the film a welcome dose of poignancy. A breed of mensch rarely encountered in Irv’s circle, he’s a thoroughly decent if somewhat gullible family man, heartbroken to learn he’s been nudged down the wrong path.
As for the ladies, Adams is sensational in rare bad-girl mode. Poured into costume designer Michael Wilkinson’s deep-plunge disco gowns, wrapped in a skimpy macramé swimsuit or a ton of fur, she has the looks and the innate savvy of an operator more than capable of stringing along two men while keeping us guessing about her ultimate intentions.
The film’s stealth weapon, however, is Lawrence. Hot off The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, she steals every scene in her limited screen time. Whether blithely blowing up a microwave or lip-syncing to “Live and Let Die” while furiously doing some housecleaning, Rosalyn is dangerously off-kilter but also shrewd; she’s both kitten and tigress. Crowned by an updo of cascading curls, she’s a sublime modern take on a quintessential screwball figure, never at fault in her own mind no matter how badly she blunders. Her ladies-room confrontation with Sydney is among the film’s high points.
Down to the smallest roles this is a brilliantly cast movie full of incisive characterizations, the most notable of them from Louis C.K. as Richie’s by-the-book FBI supervisor Stoddard Thorsen. While the comic was underused in Blue Jasmine, the prickly exchanges between Stoddard and his increasingly out-of-control agent are gems, particularly when Stoddard’s glory-hound boss (Alessandro Nivola) starts undermining him.
Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren don’t go in for lots of fancy camera moves, instead keeping the sharp widescreen compositions firmly focused on the characters. Similarly, period recreation from production designer Judy Becker and costumer Wilkinson is richly detailed and loaded with trashy-flashy glamor, without drawing attention away from the players. Three editors, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten, are credited with compressing the lively story and its multiple character arcs into two-hours-twenty that never drags. Even at its most chaotic, the narrative remains fluid.
A key element is the energizing use of music, perfectly attuned to every turn the action takes. Danny Elfman’s cool connective score follows the lead of the Duke Ellington number "Jeep’s Blues," smoothly integrated into a killer collection of cocktail tunes, brassy jazz and primo ‘70s nuggets that includes tracks from Chicago, America, Jeff Lynne, Steely Dan, Donna Summer, Elton John, David Bowie and the Bee Gees. Oh, and extra points for using the Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes original of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” instead of the heard-to-death Thelma Houston redo.
Opens: Friday, Dec. 13 (Sony)
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Matthew Russell, Thomas Matthews, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Camp
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Atlas Entertainment
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriters: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Producers: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon
Executive producers: Matthew Budman, Bradley Cooper, Eric Warren Singer, George Parra
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Judy Becker
Music: Danny Elfman
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten
R rating, 138 minutes.