Some of this actually happened,” the opening titles proclaim, followed by probably the most elaborate comb-over sequence ever to be committed to celluloid, courtesy of a balding, pot-bellied and oh-so-serious Christian Bale.
This quirky mix of hilarity and gravitas is American Hustle’s trump card, constantly keeping us on our toes as we are swirled into a heady story inspired by the Abscam operation run by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1970s.
A made-up story about a scam involving a con-man, gloriously dressed up in the artifice of the 1970s and exposing the fiction of the great American Dream – it is indeed the ultimate hustle, and we are nothing if not eager marks in director David O. Russell’s hands.
American Hustle is not without its flaws, but so potent is its combination of whip-smart script and stellar cast that we are willing to overlook most of them.
Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con-artist who, along with his partner-in-crime and lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), is forced into participating in a sting operation by FBI agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
Intially aimed at bagging other scam artists, DiMaso’s plan soon leads them in the direction of New Jersey’s corrupt politicians, including the immensely popular Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). With DiMaso swept up in making a big bust, the team gets sucked deeper into the city’s crime world, ultimately getting mixed up with the mafia.
It is a brilliant story, told with the kind of clever sleight-of-hand style you expect from movies about hustlers, such as The Sting or Catch Me If You Can.
The frenetic, disco-movie style camerawork may be an acquired taste, but the fantastic retro soundtrack – featuring everything from Duke Ellington and The Temptations to Steely Dan and David Bowie – is the kind you instantly fall in love with.
Yet, Russell’s best trick may be making us think American Hustle is about the events of the operation. Instead, what it’s really about is its characters, their desperate longing for a life other than the one they have, and their conviction that all it would take is the ability to reinvent themselves.
The story the movie tells occasionally feels slight, but in these characters, Russell and his actors find so much depth and complexity that they often overshadow everything else.
Made up mostly of the director’s old favourites (Bale and Adams were in The Fighter while Cooper, Lawrence and De Niro were in Silver Linings Playbook), Russell proves yet again that he has the innate ability to perfectly match actors to characters, and elicit unforgettable performances from them; American Hustle is only the second movie since 1981 to score nominations in all four acting categories in the upcoming Academy Awards, following Silver Linings Playbook last year.
Leading the pack is Bale, nearly unrecognisable as Rosenfeld. It is yet another transformative performance by the actor, impressive not just for how he fleshes out the role’s contradictions – dishonest yet principled, unattractive yet somehow beguiling – but also how he reigns it in at just the right moment, allowing a simmering look of rage to say more than any words could.
Matching him pace for pace is Adams, with a sexy, steely performance where much is beneath the surface; she is so much a con-artist that most of the time, even the audience doesn’t know if we’re seeing her character for who she really is.
And Lawrence is the fire to Adams’ ice, with her explosive turn as Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn – if Sydney keeps everything in, Rosalyn most certainly lets it all out, and Lawrence is all kinds of amazing as a bored, needy and self-absorbed young housewife.
The role could have easily become a caricature, yet Lawrence finds that perfect balance between humour and humanness, and steals every scene she’s in.
Add to that Cooper’s smirking, self-satisfied DiMaso (a spot-on casting decision), and Renner’s charmingly earnest turn as Polito, and you get a film filled with characters you simply cannot get enough of.