David O. Russell’s latest film, American Hustle, opens with a title card indicating that “Some of these things actually happened”. It’s a light comic touch very much indicative of the comic stylings of the film as a whole. American Hustle is a darkly comic interpretation of the ABSCAM sting operation of the 1970s and 80s, starring a team of Russell’s past collaborators — Christian Bale and Amy Adams, (The Fighter) and Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook).
Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, an overweight con artist with an elaborate combover, and Amy Adams plays his lover and co-conspirator, Sydney Prosser, who puts on a British accent to convince loan-seekers that she is wealthy and English. They engage in complex cons, but are soon caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), a man with a big ego, big dreams, and thousands of tiny curls. DiMaso forces Sydney and Irving to help him build bigger scams to snare politicians and mobsters for the FBI. They begin a con to entrap the charismatic mayor of nearby Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Bale’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) gets pulled into scam as well, and chaos ensues.
It’s a movie replete with excellent performances, something that audiences have come to expect from David O. Russell. He brings out the best in all his actors — Christian Bale is well known for his physical commitment to his various roles, with American Hustle being no exception, and he brings a comic touch to the film. Amy Adams has been on a hot streak of late, and yet Hustle is without question her best performance since Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence worked with Russell as recently as last year, so it’s no surprise to see strong performances from both (although the accent work is questionable at times). Jeremy Renner is convincing and alluring, playing Carmine Polito with a larger-than-life personality and a level of naivete that make him the easiest character to empathize with.
Even the various supporting characters of the film deliver excellently. Michael Peña’s comic timing as the fictional Sheikh created by the FBI agents as part of the scam is terrific, and Louis CK’s appearance as the frazzled boss of Richie DiMaso is one of the most memorable of the year, sure to leave audiences laughing heartily. It’s a strong supporting cast with many people that audiences will recognize by face, if not by name.
American Hustle‘s one noteworthy flaw is the manner in which it hammers in its core message and themes, both explicitly and often. Motifs emphasizing the ways in which a sleek exteriors can hide rotten interiors are repeated over and over. Russell seems keen to teach the audience that sometimes, it’s the criminals and the people at the bottom who have the best perspective, and it’s reminiscent of the themes of his 1999 Gulf War satire, Three Kings. It’s the one noteworthy flaw of the film, but in a film as fun and compelling as Hustle, it’s hard to be upset with that lack of subtlety.
Simply put, American Hustle is one of the best movies of David O. Russell’s already stellar career. Audiences will be sure to have a good time seeing this film, and without question, it is one of the best of 2013.