If you’re an actor with any degree of prominence, you’ve probably asked your agent to get you into the next David O. Russell picture. Including “American Hustle,” the dude has helped his actors to 11 Oscar nominations in his last three films, with a nod in every major acting category each of the last two years. That’s unheard of. Needless to say, “American Hustle” is a tremendously acted film, perhaps the most well-acted con movie ever.
“Hustle” is the kind of film you’d expect from Martin Scorsese, not Russell, who has shown a distinct preference for family drama in his previous films, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” This is a story about deception, corruption, the American dream and love muddling up all of it.
Set in the ’70s, “Hustle” imagines the story behind the FBI’s famous Abscam sting, in which the feds, with help from a convicted con-man, exposed several corrupt politicians by disguising an agent as a fake Arab sheik who offered them money for help with illegal activities. The con-man was Melvin Weinberg, the basis of the film’s main character, Irving Rosenfeld.
Christian Bale drastically transforms his appearance (yet again) to play Irving, this time putting on significant weight and giving himself a sophisticated comb-over. Watching him, you’ll be in shock that this is the man who played Batman for three films. Irving is a businessman who owns a chain of dry cleaners as well as a con artist with a sharp mind and a big heart. So big, in fact, that after we learn how he fell in love with Sydney (Amy Adams), we discover he’s a family man with a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and a son.
The script uses voiceovers for each of the main characters to provide some insight into who they are. Sydney, for example, has longed to be anyone but herself, so instead of ditching Irving when she finds out his main line of work, she takes on the persona of a British lady with banking connection in London. Together, they con desperate lowlifes who think they’ll land $50,000 on a $5,000 investment.
Everything changes when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches them in the act. Knowing he has them by the throat, DiMaso leverages their haplessness into helping him set up sting operations. If they comply, he’ll drop everything he has against them and let them walk. They start by setting New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as their mark. As they develop and carry out Abscam, however, DiMaso’s brazen behavior gets them all way over their heads.
Every role in Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s (“The International”) screenplay gets ample material to work with, which is part of what makes “Hustle” such an incredible ensemble film. Even Lawrence, who plays the wild card character who has little to do with the actual plot, gets a few meaty scene-stealing moments. It might be her best performance yet in terms of proving just how diverse an actress she can be.
Adams also does some of the best work of her career. An Academy darling with four nominations in six years, Sydney is her most worthy performance of any of them. The role effectively showcases her one-two punch of toughness and beauty in a way previous roles haven’t. Sydney is independent-minded but hopelessly in love, dangerously seductive but morally conscious. Given her outfits, you’d make assumptions about here character, but you’d be wrong.
Cooper’s character is hot-headed comic relief as the FBI agent driven by dreams of catching the big fish. Richie controls the pace of the film and Cooper uses that to his advantage. He’s another character with a distinct moral “direction,” as sometimes he’s a confident go-getter, sometimes he’s a baby and sometimes he’s everywhere in between. Renner’s Mayor Polito is also complex; most con marks in a film are despicable scumbags, but he might be the most likable character in the film.
Much of the dialogue was improvised, so that tells you how much of a character-driven film this really is — actors truly becoming their roles and bringing out instinctual emotion on screen. A version of this film could’ve been easily done in a way that focused entirely on the intricacies of the scam, setting up situational humor or melodrama as a result of strictly plot points. “American Hustle” takes on a life of its own with these actors/characters really playing off one another. Production pieces such as costumes and a killer ’70s soundtrack set the stylistic tone more so than the direction or the screenplay.
As much as the talent sets “American Hustle” apart from similar genre entries, it’s a con film at heart, in which the satisfaction comes from a big twist and seeing who comes out on top when the smoke clears. Although this movie does push the message of people believing what they want to believe, Russell’s previous films had more thematic and emotional weight to them. “American Hustle” is more entertaining, but less fulfilling — a fun con movie with phenomenal, praiseworthy acting.
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner