The Scorsese movie that Martin Scorsese never directed, American Hustle is a stylish tour de force for director David O. Russell and its stellar cast. Russell creates a taught, delicately plotted caper-comedy that plays out like The Sting filtered through Boogie Nights, drenches it in ’70s period nostalgia, and then gives his cast room to lose themselves in the mix. The result is a contact high to rival the best of cocaine- and alcohol fueled nights at Studio 54.
The movie is loosely based on the controversial ABSCAM sting of the late ’70s (or, as the opening title card puts it, “some of this actually happened.”) that grew from a small-time stolen property case into a full-blown political scandal that nabbed six members of the House of Representatives, a state senator, and a U.S. Senator (among others) on a slew of corruption charges. Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer’s fictionalized version is only slightly stranger than the true story.
It’s populated almost exclusively by deeply damaged people looking to hit it big, among them Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), the owner of a small chain of dry-cleaning shops who also engages in laundering of other sorts, such as fencing stolen art on the black market and making a killing via bogus loans that mirror the financial shenanigans of recent years. Irving meets and quickly falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a down-and-outter from Albuquerque who quickly becomes his lover partner in crime, going so far as to adopt the persona of a well-connected jet-setting English aristocrat for their scams. They’re a dynamic duo and deeply in love, which makes the fact that Irving won’t leave his much younger wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and his adopted son for her all the more frustrating for Sydney.
Enter ambitious, career ladder-climbing FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who corners Irving and Sydney with so much incriminating evidence they have no choice but to work for him as informants and would-be partners, helping the Feeb cast a net over corrupt politicians, one that also threatens to ensnare Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). To his credit, Polito is largely decent and thoroughly committed to pulling his city out of economic decline by revitalizing the Atlantic City boardwalk; the fact that he’s willing to get into bed with the mafia to do it makes him a target for cops and crooks alike.
The always mercurial Bale doesn’t just dive into his role as Irving, he wears him like a second skin. Bale has a notorious for sculpting himself into the characters he plays, going so far as to starve himself to skin and bones for Rescue Dawn and The Fighter in between bulking up for the Batman movies. Here, he wields an astonishing pot belly and what may be the most impressive comb-over ever committed to celluloid. Hiding his eyes behind aviator sunglasses and his gut behind candy-colored velvet suits, he gives a performance as deglamourized his appearance; a complex projection of a schmuck whose egomania subsides just long enough for reality to kick him in the ass. Bale has looked worse (see The Machinist), but has rarely been better.
Lawrence’s Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook may be viewed as a fluke (or a delayed win for her superior performance in Winter’s Bone), but here she reminds us why she’s in such high demand. As the self-absorbed, vapid-but-cunning Rosalyn she shows a flair for comedy that she doesn’t often get to demonstrate. It’s Adams, however, who gets the meatier role as Sydney; a study in grasping the American Dream via self-reinvention, she becomes lost in her own illusion to the point of losing sight of exactly what — or who — she really wants. Though he’s sometimes overshadowed by these grandiose characters, and by his character’s tragic perm as well (Seriously, American Hustle‘s hairdresser deserves an Oscar nomination in the Visual Effects category) Cooper nevertheless rises to the occasion and finds Richie’s inner selfish bastard without losing sight of his flawed humanity. A superb bit part by Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s supervisor and a menace-fueled cameo by Robert DeNiro round out the show.
Russell punctuates the big, loud satire with bursts of energy via Scorsese-esque whip pans and camera zooms, montages scored with cheesy ’70s pop hits by Elton John, the Bee Gees, ELO, Tom Jones, Wings, et al., and dueling voiceovers (four of them) a la Casino, but does so with an even hand that isn’t as self-assured as Marty’s but is just as deft. What he doesn’t do is hit the usual crime drama plot beats, and that keeps sucked into the story and enjoying the ride all the way.