Scorsese used to make these kind of movies in the ’90’s, director David O. Russell is making them now. American Hustle is an insatiable crime movie with lots of clever twists and turns, and stellar acting top to bottom. This cast is one of the few reasons why they should give out awards to films for ensemble acting. Christian Bale overcomes a pudgy stomach and bad comb-over, Amy Adams is dazzlingly sexy and diabolical, Bradley Cooper is hyperventilated but logical, Jennifer Lawrence is ditzy but boisterous, Jeremy Renner is one of many rich and powerful men who will be the target of a sting operation. The film is vibrant and rollicking for about twenty minutes – just perfect in those minutes. So much happens, that it’s also thick and dense, layered and convoluted, winding and serpentine. But Russell pulls us through.
Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a dry cleaner business owner who makes extra dough in art forgery and investment scams on the side. He introduces the crooked side of himself to Adams, who plays New Mexico girl Sydney, who slips into a British accent when she joins him in on his scams. Cooper is FBI man Richie DiMaso (with a perm) who cracks down on them with an arrest. He strikes a deal with them: Participate in four takedowns of congressmen and senators in Atlantic City casino corruption and they will be pardoned.
The foundation in these stings is based entirely in entrapment, with loopholes. But this is the late 1970’s (it’s mildly based on the Abscam stings from that time), and so this is simply a fab retro tale and swanky docudrama. Irving wants out of this scheme early, Sydney concurs by wanting to seduce the FBI man and blackmail him as a way out. Troubles arise with Irving’s actual wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence, such a tart!), who eavesdrops on her husband’s troubles and then insists she join him on big mob congregations, only she doesn’t know she’s mingling with the mob. Adams, ratcheting up jealousy as Sydney, brings a fine vulnerability to contrast with her extrovert sparkle. Adams, sometimes going back and forth between accents, brings something sexy, brash and distinctive that we have rarely seen before from any actress.
Our greatest emotional attachment might be with Bale, who is overbloated, worn-out, a zealous schemer, and yet kind of wants to play nice and fair, and just be done with trouble. Bale sells us on the heavy mileage of the character, a guy that’s been knees-deep in hustle and scams his entire life. The way he wears his clothes posits him somewhere between a music producer and a porn producer. But he’s more endearing than scummy.
Nothing gets simpler, it only gets more elaborate and entangling with other individuals: Michael Pena as an FBI man pretending to be an Arab sheik, Jack Huston as a mob guy with the hots for Rosalyn, Louis C.K. (brilliant) as a FBI boss with concerns on the sting operation budget, and then one howlingly funny-scary cameo by a legendary veteran actor of Scorsese films whom I will not name.
The smart, mischievous script is by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, but it’s an intricate one, too, keep in mind. I only wish I could say “Hustle” flows exceptionally, but it doesn’t have the dashing and effortless feel of Russell’s “Three Kings” or “The Fighter.” It rambles some, in an erratic way, and the structure is kind of messy. I think that holds me back from feeling I’d want to watch it again anytime soon from start to finish. But there’s a lot of freshness and surprises here, the actors are having a great combustible time together, and when it arrives where it’s going, the final twists are quite sly and a real neat trick.
Note: Upgraded from 4 to 4.5 stars after experiencing a second viewing.
138 Minutes. Rated R.
THRILLER / CON GAMES / WEEKEND VIEWING DEBAUCHERY
Film Cousins: “House of Games” (1987); “GoodFellas” (1990); “Casino” (1995); “American Gangster” (2007).