Synopsis: A con man, Irving Rosenfeld, along with his seductive partner Sydney Prosser, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia. (From IMDb)
Review: David O Russell has been directing films for about two decades, but he did not achieve massive popularity until his 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook. Russell tends to write grounded but slightly mad capped films and American Hustle is no different. This is a thrilling and well-crafted con set in the late 1970s.The plot is loosely based upon the Abscam sting operation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At its core, the narrative is a character study. Through the various characters, Russell explores dissatisfaction and the lengths people will go to in order to achieve the elusive “better life”. Some people achieve their goals and others crash spectacularly. Hustle explores both sides and the excitement comes from watching everyone’s machinations come to fruition.
The opening title card helpfully points out that “some of this actually happened.” Then it cuts away to the slightly traumatizing sight of a paunchy Christian Bale plastering an elaborate hairpiece onto his balding head. Let’s just say that the razor sharp cheekbones of Bruce Wayne are a distant memory. Bale portrays the swaggering Irving Rosenfeld, a small time con artist who also owns a chain of legitimate dry cleaners. He is fantastic at making a lying sleaze ball come to life. Rosenfeld is an odd mixture of compassion and cutthroat ambition. And he is the perfect virtual foil for the flamboyant characters played by Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper. While everyone else is slightly crazy, Rosenfeld is a quiet magnetic force that everything revolves around. I think this is one of Bale’s best roles because he really disappears into the character and gives a nuanced performance. Also, I think the character works because he is supported by a glittering ensemble and not carrying the narrative by himself.
Rosenfeld’s better half is portrayed by the charismatic Amy Adams. She plays Sydney Prosser with a blend of unending spunk and conniving intelligence. Sydney is a dangerous woman and is the perfect partner to her reserved partner. Like Rosenfeld, Sydney excels at self-invention and manages to go from being a stripper to the elegant British noblewoman persona she uses for loan scams. It is great to see Adams in a grittier and more mature role. While she excels at portraying the wide eyed ingénue, Sydney lets her exercise her acting skills and explore a darker side. Also, all Adams’ outfits are incredibly sexy plunging numbers with an array of sequins. Considering the time period, her ensembles are surprisingly elegant instead of tacky. I only mention the costuming because the outfits help Adams achieve a much more alluring vibe then she usually exudes. Bale and Adams play off each other perfectly and their chemistry really carries the film. If they were not believable, then the entire narrative would have fallen flat.
Jennifer Lawrence takes a break from portraying the heroic Katniss Everdeen to play the brassy Rosalyn. She is the unhinged and bored wife of Rosenfeld. Despite being a small and underdeveloped role, Lawrence nearly steals every scene she inhabits. Rosalyn is vulnerable, needy, and insanely passive aggressive. Between the bad tan, teased hair, and trashy nail varnish, Rosalyn is a forceful personality. She knows enough to be dangerous and makes everyone nervous because of her unpredictability. I am not sure this character would have worked as well in the hands of a less talented actress. Lawrence more than holds her own. Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso is a hotheaded FBI agent with delusions of grandeur. He wishes to make a name for himself by making a big bust. Cooper puts in another great performance. His acting has drastically improved over the years and he plays an unhinged maniac to perfection. Jeremy Renner is a stand out as the genuinely good intentioned politician who manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Part of the fun in American Hustle is trying to figure out who is conning whom.Everything is topsy-turvy and it is hard to tell the con from the truth. The film is over-the-top and little messy in its storytelling. But given the larger than life characters, everything just clicks together. This is more than a caper film, it is a multi-layered con that keeps the viewer guessing until the end. Russell and his team perfectly capture the craziness of the era between the well-placed pop music and outrageous clothing. I am rather glad that I did not grow up in the 1970s, shoulder pads and sequins are a horrible combination. However, the aesthetic is never overly crazy. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren does not allow the film to fall into kitsch territory. While the film acknowledges the gaudy nature of society at the time, Russell never lets the narrative fall into satire. I think this is an outstanding film. It is excellently cast and the script is fantastic. While the plot is full of tension, it is slow burning. So do not expect any large scale action sequences.