American Hustle is a film chock full of indelible performances by a brilliant cast and one of the best storytellers in the world in an absolute groove. While many Oscar films are heavy, dour and serious, American Hustle is hilarious, silly, and unapologetic in its excesses and awful characters. Its outfits, its makeup, its hairstyles… it’s all pure ’70s cheese, and like the film, it’s all utter gold.
Christian Bale, the king of transformation, has done it again. He’s done skinny twice (The Machinist, The Fighter), buff more times to count, but he goes portly for this one, as Irving Rosenfeld, a conman with a string of laundromat chains in New York, simultaneously scamming the desperate with false promises of loans. Irving is greasy, seedy scum with a hairstyle that gives comb overs a bad name. Yet even so, his confidence and charisma has pulled in stripper-hustler Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) like a tractor beam. Amy Adams, in more over-the-top, cleavage baring dresses than Miley Cyrus could pull off, with tremendously garish hairstyles to boot, is similarly fantastic as Sydney, who fashions a double life as Edith, a British businesswoman with connections to European bankers.
Together, they’re an unstoppable team… until the enigmatic, arrogant and hungry FBI agent Richie DiMaso (an unreal Bradley Cooper) arrives and ruins their perfect system (and lives). Though, as DiMaso points out, if it was so seamless, he wouldn’t have sniffed out their scheme. Instead of locking the pair up, DiMaso seeks to use them to make a far bigger score, going after politicians, mobsters and the biggest fish he can catch to make a name for himself.
From the start, it’s clear that DiMaso is even more reprehensible than Irving and Sydney, willing to do anything to get his way, to make a name for himself and to rise up the ranks of the FBI. Rules, bureaucracy and command structure mean about as much as his fiancee: which is to say, not much. Soon, he targets Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, still fantastic but in a less flashy and juicy role), a far more public figure, but no less desperate for money to revamp Atlantic City and bring jobs and money to New Jersey. He’s their mark, and the only thing keeping Irving and Sydney from prison. It doesn’t take long for it all to come unraveling, with big-time stakes and consequences looming for each and every person, who all have it coming.
There’s another volatile variable in the mix: Irving’s young wife, baby mama and personal Kryptonite, Rosalyn. Catching Fire‘s Jennifer Lawrence is like the Mentos to the already caffeinated Coke bottle in this flick. In the role, Jennifer Lawrence breaks acting. She summons new depths of sheer insanity as Rosalyn; she’s manipulative, sexy, unpredictable, dangerously naive and stupid. I found myself giggling with glee at each of her scenes, or the opposite: just speechless and giddy with her surely Oscar nominated performance. The only thing scarier than her character is how talented this woman is, and she’s still just 23 years old. Watch her song-and-dance routine to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and try to keep your head from exploding.
That’s a simplified version of this convoluted mess of entanglements, which is a compliment. While based loosely on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, the movie’s structure is a tangle of twists and turns, as unpredictable and loose as its motley characters. You could make the case that everyone in this film is deserving of an Oscar, with Bale as Best Actor, Cooper as Best Supporting Actor, Adams as Best Actress and Lawrence as Best Supporting, and Renner as the snub we would all bemoan. And I haven’t even discussed the bullied Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Angel‘s Elisabeth Rohm and.. .an amazing cameo I won’t ruin. David O. Russell, the auteur behind The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, is surely an actor’s delight, crafting rich characters and letting his talented cast ravish sets and each other with abandon. American Hustle is an actor’s playground, a film populated with scenery chewing actors and characters. There is no straight man or woman to pump the brakes on this thrilling narrative, no Debbie Downer to bring us down.
David O. Russell has made his best film yet, a bubbly, wild, ridiculous film that is never for a moment less than wholly captivating, ribald and fascinating. It’s hard to imagine a movie like this beating out such an important and serious movie like 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture, but it’s worthy of every inch of praise you’ll hear in the coming months.
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 2hr 9min