“American Hustle” dances along with a bunch of colorful characters roaming around their groovy era, and it does its dance as long as it can under its cheerful tone. Even when we are not entirely sure about who is conning whom or who is being conned by whom, the movie rolls its story and characters with so much energy and style that we gladly go along with it, and we have a joyful fun as the characters roll or clash with each other.
The story is about how a mid-level scammer Irving Rosenfeld(Christian Bale) and several people associated with him get into a very tricky situation. On the surface, Rosenfeld looks like a legitimate business man owning several successful dry cleaner shops in Long Island, but his actual income comes from his small-time criminal operations including art forgery and personal loan fraudulence, and he has been so far successful enough to have his own American dream while covering his head with an awful piece of comb-over. The opening scene shows Rosenfeld carefully decking himself up in his hotel room, and Christian Bale strikes us with his character’s ungainly physical characteristics including paunchy belly and balding head during this wryly comic moment. Once he finishes redesigning, or reinventing, himself, he is ready for work, and he goes forward with confidence while that ugly hair-piece is always on his head.
Considering that phony aspect of his life, it is no wonder that he comes to fall in love with a young woman named Sydney Prosser(Amy Adams), who also reinvents herself while hiding her seedy past behind her. When these two masquerading souls happen to meet at a party, something instantly clicks between them, and, what do you know, Rosenfeld soon reveals everything about himself to this woman just because he really loves her.
That could have been an unwise thing in his criminal field where disguise is necessary for living, but, fortunately, Prosser becomes his partner-in-crime within few minutes. With her fake British accent and sexy dresses for her cleavage, she newly disguises herself as Lady Edith, a woman connected with some good financial friends in England, and Prosser and Rosenfeld have lots of fun and thrill together both professionally and personally as money keeps rolling from many hapless targets of theirs.
However, there is a big problem in their relationship, and they don’t know what to do with it. As a matter of fact, Irving is a married man, and he does not hide it form Sydney, but his wife Rosalyn(Jennifer Lawrence) will not let her husband leave her easily because this tempestuous but vulnerable woman needs someone to support her. Furthermore, Irving is not going to leave her either mainly because he cares about his stepson, who looks fairly normal despite the problematic relationship between his parents in the household.
And then they get another complication, and that comes from Richie DiMaso(Bradley Cooper with a curly hairdo as bad as Bale’s), a FBI agent who initially approaches to Irving and Sydney as another potential target and then promptly arrests them on the spot. DiMaso is going to use them as a bait to arrest other bigger scammers, and Irving and Sydney, after realizing that there is no alternative choice for them, decide to cooperate with DiMaso for not going to jail.
Their deal looks simple at first, but things become more complicated as the operation is getting bigger and bigger in scale. The screenplay by the director David O. Russell and his co-writer Eric Warren Singer is loosely inspired by the Abscam scandal during the late 1970s and early 1980s(The title card at the beginning reminds us humorously, “some of this actually happened.”), and its main pleasure is how it keeps being busy, crazy, and vibrant as the situation becomes more serious and unpredictable for everyone. DiMaso’s initial plan was merely catching four major con men, but he and his temporary criminal partners find themselves juggling more balls than expected; the first was the other con man acquainted with Rosenfeld, and then, mainly through a powerful and well-connected New Jersey politician Carmine Polito(Jeremy Renner), far more(and far bigger) fishes to catch come in series, including a senator, several congressmen and the members of a powerful Mafia organization.
Russell accelerates the plot with a stylish gusto reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”(1990) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”(1997), and the movie visually engaging to watch. The camera frequently moves around or along with the characters in smooth and fluid movement, and we always remain held to its bouncing narrative even when we are not sure about where it is exactly heading to. A bunch of familiar period songs including “Live and Let Die” and “White Rabbit” are effectively and precisely used for dramatic effects, and these songs also work as amusing periodic details along with those tacky period clothes worn by the characters in the movie.
The movie also reminds me a lot of Russell’s recent works pulsating with offbeat sensibility in their respective genres. “The Fighter”(2010) seemed to be about its boxer hero at first, but its main fuel came from its colorful and noisy supporting characters fighting over the hero who was more or less than their boxing ring, and that was more interesting than the boxing scenes in the film. While most of the main characters in “Silver Linings Playbook”(2012) were crazy or quirky in each own way, their dynamic interactions brought a fresh air to its romantic comedy conventions, and the movie ultimately brought out genuine optimism in the middle of their craziness.
In a strict sense, the main characters of “American Hustle” are mostly seedy people not very honest to themselves while hiding themselves behind disguise or delusion, but they are flawed but interesting people to watch none the less, and some of them are actually more likable than expected. In case of Polito, he is not a greedy idiot but a capable mayor hoping to do something good for the people of his city, and the movie shows him as a loving and exemplary family man at one point – but it goes without saying that he chooses a wrong way for his good intentions and, sadly, he is bound to pay for that sooner or later.
Russell assembled the cast mainly consisting of the actors who previously worked with him before, and these dependable actors give excellent performances as expected. Christian Bale, who gained more than 40 pounds(around 18-kg) for playing his role in contrast to his diet for the Oscar-winning performance in “The Fighter”, is terrific as usual while holding the ground for the other actors, and Amy Adams, who previously worked with Bale in “The Fighter”, gives an alluring performance as a woman seemingly true to her feelings but rather elusive about her thoughts. It seems Prosser is getting drawn toward DiMaso while getting distant from Rosenfeld, and Rosenfeld naturally begins to wonder about what is going on between them: is it an act as she said or does she really like him?
Bale and Adams are well supported by the two lead performers from “Silver Linings Playbook”. As a federal agent eager for the big chance for his promotion, Bradley Cooper has his own funny moments including the hilarious scenes involved with DiMaso’s long-suffering boss(Louis C.K.), and Jennifer Lawrence, who looks strikingly different from her recent turn in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”(2013), surprises us again here as an unstable and unpredictable woman who cannot be possibly ignored even if she does not demand it loud. Rosalyn can be pretty oblivious to what’s going on around her, but she can be also pretty troublesome if she wants that out of pique, and Lawrence steals every minute of her scenes as the wild card of the movie.
As an amiable politician unwittingly making himself and his colleagues fallen into entrapment, Jeremy Renner also deserves to be mentioned along with his co-stars, and his scenes with Bale feel warm and sincere. While they get along well together, Polito really regards Rosenfeld as a good friend, and that certainly gives another burden to Rosenfeld’s heart, which is already burdened with many other personal matters besides that. The movie has enough space for the other good actors including Jack Huston, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Saïd Taghmaoui, Michael Peña, and a certain well-known actor who makes an uncredited cameo appearance during a crucial scene in the middle of the movie(I know many of you have already known who that actor is, but I won’t spoil your entertainment).
Like Paul Thomas Anderson did in “Boogie Nights”, David O. Russell successfully made a distinctive and entertaining work moving on its rhythm and mood while recognizing the influences from other films. While the movie is a bit overlong and subsequently loses some of its steam during its third act as following the predictable genre conventions, this is a well-made comedy equipped with juicy performances and satirical edges on the whole, and the outcome is one of the better films we get during this Oscar season.