Film Review: American Hustle

Big-haired, polyestered 1970s New York is the scene of this bracing crime comedy-drama about an FBI sting that brings together mobsters, crooked politicians, con artists—and one bored, jealous stay-at-home wife who could blow it all up.

From Three Kings to The Fighter to Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell has made a career of jumping into popular genres and emerging with films that transcend. He mostly does it by bending and loosening the genre rules, to give his characters—and his actors—more space to roam. And he does it again in American Hustle, about a pair of grifters who aren’t just in it for the quick score, but also because it’s how they’ve survived. That they’ve discovered in each other a kindred spirit, maybe even a soul mate, is but a bonus—for them and for us.

Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) have a good thing going with their simple but effective scam: They target marks who are desperate for a cash infusion, charging a finder’s fee to “try” to secure loans, then shrugging and walking away after informing their clients that they’ve been denied. Somehow they get away with this, until their latest mark turns out to be ambitious undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Busted!

This would be the final act for most grifter films. But it’s merely the launch point for Russell, who whips up a new variation on the crooks-working-for-the-government theme, based on real events. With a crackling script and masterful direction, Russell has made a fiction that is stranger—and way more fun—than the truth. He has the help of a dream cast of actors, all at the top of their games.

As Irving, the lanky-haired, beer-bellied Long Island dry cleaner-turned-con artist, Bale is as quirkily animated here as he was simmeringly stoical in Out of the Furnace. The moment we first see him, fussily gluing pieces of hair on his bald pate so that he’ll have enough hair for a comb-over, we know that, once again, Bale has gone all in on this character. In most situations, his would be a standout performance. Here, he sets the bar high, and everyone is right there with him. This is a whole ensemble of standout performances.

And it’s indeed an ensemble effort. When hyper-driven agent DiMaso coerces Irving and Sydney into helping him set up an investment sting designed to lure shady politicians and shadier mobsters, he’s not just greasing the skids for a nice little operation to spiral out of his control. He’s also setting the stage for a raggedly farcical roundelay in which DiMaso is the disruptive third wheel in a two-person con—and the third side of a not-so-romantic triangle. DiMaso lusts for Sydney and she leads him on, hoping that a little competition will get Irving to commit—which he can’t, because he’s married to needy, manipulative Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a possibly mad housewife. Once she insistently inserts herself into the picture, an already delightful mess gets delightfully messier, in some gloriously unpredictable ways.

But it’s not entirely surprising when bored, lonely Rosalyn gets fed up with feeling left out, cozies up to a junior made man (Jack Huston), and intentionally blurts out the wrong thing, which throws a large monkey wrench into a sting that’s already going sideways. This is just one of many out-of-the-blue moments that might have struck a narrative wrong note if it didn’t feel so absolutely right on a character-driven level. Therein lies the key to Hustle’s magic: Even the strangest behavior is completely in character.

The sting that drives the story is Russell’s liberally embroidered recreation of the real-life 1970s “Abscam” FBI operation, in which the feds invented a fictional Arab sheik who supposedly wanted to invest in the revival of the Atlantic City boardwalk. The idea was to lure one big fish—here, the fictional Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner)—who would in turn attract even bigger fish, from congressmen to good-fellas. Russell and co-screenwriter Eric Singer stay fairly true to the operation’s structure and strategy, but take some dramatic license with the principals’ private lives—which of course get hopelessly entangled in the sting. This is Russell at his most inspired, weaving the interplay of so many different people who come from so many different places, with so many different agendas. By the time Robert De Niro makes an unbilled appearance as Victor Telleggio—“Meyer Lansky’s right-hand man”—the film has us watching with bated breath. The twists and turns are that surprising, and that rewarding.

De Niro’s arrival seems appropriate in a film that often feels like a knowing nod to the crime-movie stylings of early to mid-Martin Scorsese: from the extensive use of voiceover flashbacks, to the pop standards and rock classics that richly evoke the period, to the sudden eruptions of physical violence that you didn’t see coming. None of this feels over-derivative; Russell’s own voice and vision still prevail. This film is full of bravura shots, some of them one-of-a-kind—as when Irving and Sydney hungrily kiss in the back of his dry cleaning shop, enveloped by clothes in clear plastic garment bags that swirl on their moving rack like rushing river rapids.

That moment is pure visual poetry. More often, Russell impresses you with those out-of-the-blue behavioral flourishes, usually from Lawrence’s Rosalyn—who punctuates her big face-off tirade to Sydney not with the anticipated roundhouse slap, but by planting a big, lipstick-smearing kiss. This from the possibly crazy lady whom Irving has previously described as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” What does that even mean? Why even ask? Even at its most cryptic, this film’s words, like its actions, just work. They just fit.

But as verbally and visually inspired as it is, American Hustle’s greatest strength lies in the people who inhabit its characters. Adams exudes smarts and spilling-out-of-her-dress sexiness as the not-as-cool-as-she-wants-to-seem Sydney; Cooper is mercurially all over the place (in a good way) as the hell-bent DiMaso; and Lawrence continues to amaze, in a dazzlingly manic-depressive-funny-scary tour de force. Of all the gifted actors who stand toe-to-toe with Bale, Lawrence is the one who comes closest to stealing this movie. And this in a borderline supporting role. Still in its relative infancy, her career nails another milestone, in a film of equally distinguished performances.

They should have curtain calls for movies like this one.