Perhaps the biggest pleasure of the enormously pleasurable American Hustle is watching four of the finest living movie stars sink their teeth into meaty roles and have more fun than you’re ever likely to have. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence make up the movie’s central quartet of lovable conmen and conmen wannabes, each apparently engaging in a contest to see which one can generate the most onscreen sparks. Anchored by this magnificent quartet, director David O. Russell’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar winning romance Silver Linings Playbook is overlong, narratively confounding, tonally precarious and utterly exhilarating.
Though the story is inspired by the FBI’s utterly insane Abscam sting, which claimed four senators and one representative in the late 1970s, an amusing introductory title card makes Russell’s intentions quite clear. “Some of this actually happened,” the card reads, absolving the movie of any pesky adherence to historical fact. The movie revels in this freedom. It’s not a documentary, nor does it pretend to be. Rather, as scripted by Russell and Eric Singer, it’s an exploration of four characters searching for their own identities even as they assume others.
More directly, the movie is an homage to the excesses of the time period. The hair is big, the costumes bold, the soundtrack brash. The most memorable scenes take place in nightclubs and hotel rooms, with Russell recklessly flinging the camera from one side of the room to the other and paying obvious and frequent homage to Martin Scorsese. As with Silver Linings Playbook, the dialogue flies fast and furious. In the hands of lesser actors, it might trip up the movie’s peculiar narrative flow. In the voices of its sterling ensemble, American Hustle soars.
Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con man who distracts himself from his shoddy home life with wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and son Danny by fronting a fake insurance company and perfecting the art of the steal. When he meets the radiant Sydney Prosser (Adams) at a party, he can’t help but get her alone, confess his love for Duke Ellington and sweep her off her feet. Sydney joins Irving in his pursuits and falls in love with him, but matters go astray when hyperactive FBI agent Rich DiMasio (Cooper) catches the pair in the act. Instead of incarcerating them, DiMasio makes a deal: help the FBI arrest four other con artists. The sting is on – the targets include kindly politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, excellent) and, eventually, some Congressmen.
All of the performances are lively, but it’s especially refreshing to see Amy Adams in a role that’s worthy of her immense talent and unimaginable beauty. After her unremarkable turn as the underwritten Lois Lane in this summer’s stultifying Man of Steel, Adams comes out to play here. Russell takes pains to film her in some of the boldest costumes in recent cinematic memory, and the script affords her ample opportunities to show her range. Sydney, sometimes known as Lady Edith Greensley, is the object of desire as much as your run-of-the-mill conventional love interest, but she’s also a fierce agent of change and growth in the male characters, who are often too blinded by their own ambitions to realize that they’re standing in the presence of, essentially, a goddess with a fierce competitive streak. Adams’ accent work enhances the climactic revealing ensembles transcend their aesthetic appeal to deepen her character.
Her sparring partners are no slouches either. As is his wont, Bale’s commitment is both emotional and physical. He gained nearly 40 pounds to play Irving, and the act transcends its gimmickry with his finely honed performance, which balances the character’s sex appeal and schlubbiness, as well as his quick wit. Cooper, meanwhile, is having the time of his life playing a coke-addled FBI agent hungry for recognition from his superiors, including a welcome Louis C.K. In Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper seemed to relish the opportunity to inhabit the manic mind of a man suffering from bipolar disorder. Here, he’s even more electric, clearly jazzed by his character’s limitless energy and absurd overconfidence.
And then there’s the matter of Jennifer Lawrence, who caps off another outstanding year with another monster of a performance, albeit one with less screen time than she had in Silver Linings. As Lloyd’s naive and socially damaged wife, Lawrence oozes oily charm and repugnant ignorance. The script layers new facets for her character in each of her brief appearances – first she’s merely out of touch, then she’s competitive and socially ambitious, then she’s accidentally and perhaps purposely destructive. Lawrence handles these transformations with aplomb, gracefully navigating her character’s exaggerated absurdity.
Is this movie more than the sum of its glittering parts? I think so. It’s an homage to the glory days of one of America’s most revered filmmakers and a celebration of an aesthetically overwhelming era, but it’s also a quietly sad character piece about the psychological consequences of lies within lies. With performances that teeter on the line between campy and melancholic, American Hustle reminds us that crime gives, but it also takes away.