Here’s a word you don’t want to haul out too often: masterpiece. David O. Russell’s American Hustle (R – language, sexuality, violence) is a familiar meal of story tropes and characters (it’s based on a true story, for crying out loud) made new and invigorating by its chef’s uncompromising vision, and his painstaking attention to every last detail. Russell’s past successes – from Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter to the brash misfire I (Heart) Huckabees – have all benefited from this same mix of storytelling craft and artistic confidence. But Hustle is the work of a director who figured something out between his last film and this one. Russell has come into his own, and our theaters are the richer for it.
American Hustle is a retelling of the real-life Abscam political scandal of the late 1970s, in which a clutch of U.S. congressmen were nabbed in an FBI sting of faux Arab investors and cash-stuffed briefcases. Here, the operation is the love child of two parents: Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a hyper-ambitious FBI agent who lives with his mother; and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a professional con artist whose very hair is a testament to elaborate dishonesty. Irving is working with the FBI to avoid prison time on some low-level scams, but his presence inspires Richie to make the most of Irving’s innate skills and go for the big fish – the politicians and mobsters whose arrests will guarantee headlines and advancement.
No one is comfortable with their life in Hustle – not Irving, who’s married to one woman but in love with another; nor Richie, who has a fiancée of his own but can’t take his eyes off Sydney (Amy Adams), Irving’s longtime mistress with a pet English accent that she likes to take for long walks. Sydney also goes by Evelyn, an identity she uses as an escape hatch for troubled times – like, for instance, when she’s dragooned into helping Irving with his FBI work. Then there’s Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose cannon who’s not as smart as she thinks she is, and who fairly begs to be taken seriously.
Sydney, Irving and Richie target Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, NJ, as their initial mark and unwitting accomplice in their scheme to move higher up the political food chain. Carmine is a fascinating character in a movie that’s full of them: A community leader who gets on the bribe train not out of any particular sense of greed, but from a pragmatic acceptance that it’s the fastest way to make things happen in a town in need of change. During his speech at a celebratory fundraiser, Carmine’s sincerity and passion for his cause are laid bare – and made all the more quietly tragic by the fact that we know he’s going down.
It was during Carmine’s speech that I began to note the great care Russell was taking with each member of this large ensemble cast: Although the film begins and ends with Irving, American Hustle creates a sense that each character is the star of their own movie, and that we’re watching all of those movies at once. Robert Altman mastered that trick, as did Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Boogie Nights feels like a second cousin to this film). It’s a rare talent, and Russell has cracked the code.
Like any ’70s extravaganza, the film lets its wardrobe artists run wild – the wide collars, plunging necklines and over-the-top hairstyles are all good for a leer and a laugh. American Hustle lets us enjoy these jokes, and more, without subjecting its characters to ridicule. The soundtrack is a time machine, too, while also serving as a kind of solid-fuel booster: a K-Tel accelerant that adds weight to already significant moments while greasing the track to keep the cars running smoothly. The film takes its corners at full speed, giving the viewer the impression of being taken on a joyride with a supremely capable driver at the wheel. Which isn’t far from the truth.
Russell has stacked the acting deck by populating his film with some of the most interesting stars working today. These five performers create the illusion of our having known their characters well before they first show up on screen; we’re not meeting them so much as being dropped into their lives, already in progress. Bale’s portrayal is predictably bold – even with Irving’s middle-aged paunch, we can see why Sydney and Rosalyn are both so drawn to him – but I was really impressed by Lawrence’s live-wire tempestuousness, and Cooper’s manic desperation. His Richie craves a sexier, more vibrant life than helping his mom clean the filter on their aquarium. Richie can’t resist the siren call of an elaborate con or the allure of Sydney’s décolletage and long legs; eventually even manhandling his FBI supervisor (Louis C.K.) becomes internally consistent – a logical leap from an illogical man.
As a caper movie without an alpha male, American Hustle is a tone poem to the banality of real life – even when that reality includes some exciting stuff. It’s a serious comedy, an exploration of duplicity and deception as survival tools, and a master class in filmmaking. Mostly, it’s just a blast to watch. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year … or last year, for that matter.
(IMAGE: The cast of American Hustle. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)