There are moments in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” where it feels like you’re watching one of the great Martin Scorsese pictures. It’s a slick, passionately constructed crime drama full of smooth dialog and intriguing characters. Of course “American Hustle” never gets quite as brutal as “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” or even “The Departed.” The film is just as much a crime comedy as it is a crime drama. In that sense, perhaps “American Hustle” is more along the lines of “The Sting,” or “Catch Me if You Can,” or maybe even “The Ocean’s Eleven” movies. Whatever you compare it to, “American Hustle” still works beautifully as an enormously fun con artist picture while also managing to be something deeper.
The screenplay by Russell and Eric Singer is inspired by the FBI ABSCAM operation, although it follows the actual events about as closely as “Frozen” followed “The Snow Queen.” Russell’s stylized interpretation reeks of ’70s culture, from the retro movie studio logo, to the funky soundtrack, to the flashing costumes, to the tacky hairdos. The worst hairdo in the film belongs to Christian Bale, who sports a hideous comb over in addition to a beer belly and pair of aviator glasses as Irving Rosenfeld. While not much to look at, Irving’s one of the craftiest conmen in all of New Jersey.
Irving finds a kindred spirit in Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, a grifter whose every bit as manipulative as she is sexy. The two put their heads together to pull off a number of cons. Their luck eventually runs out, however, after getting busted by Richie DiMaso, a curly-haired FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper. Irving and Sydney are given the choice of either going to jail or helping Richie catch bigger fish. Their main target is Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey who is believed to have mob connections.
Bale, Adams, and Cooper are outstanding as people caught in the middle of both a love triangle and a three-way confidence game. All three key players previously worked with Russell in one of the his last two films, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” He puts every actor to great use once again in what’s easily one of the year’s most lively acting ensembles. The standout of the bunch is Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, Irving’s big-mouthed, absent-minded wife who refuses to give him a divorce. It feels pointless to sing Lawrence anymore praises seeing how the whole world is in love with her, but I’m going to anyways.
She hits it out of the park once again as an unpredictable loudmouth who just might blow Irving’s whole operation. Like her Oscar-winning performance from last year, Lawrence is funny, lovable, and dominates every scene she’s in. The increasingly impressive young actress is so entertaining to watch that the film actually feels a little slower whenever she isn’t on screen. At the same time, Lawrence brings a fair deal of depth and sympathy to Rosalyn, who easily could have just been a New Jersey housewife stereotype.
For a film full of conmen, mobsters, crooked politicians, and insane FBI agents, every character in “American Hustle” is surprisingly likable. None of them are strait-up villains, although nobody’s a strait-up good guy either. They’re all just completely in over their heads, hustling every other person in the room to get what they want. The only person in the movie who acts as a levelheaded voice of reason is Louis C.K. in an unlikely performance as Cooper’s boss.
Even with all the backstabbing and scams going on, one can’t help but want to see things work out for every hustler in the movie. There’s just something incredibly identifiable about each of them Russell and his actors perfectly capture. That’s one of Russell’s strongest attributes as a storyteller, exploring characters that are deeply flawed, but also have a lot to say about human nature.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.