By Melissa Agar
American Hustle (Columbia, 2013) – Director: David O. Russell. Writers: Eric Singer, David O. Russell. Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., & Jack Huston. Color, 138 minutes.
For me, there’s no greater period in film history than the 10 years spanning roughly 1968 to 1978. Seriously, go back and check out some of the genius films released in those 10 years – Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Network, Chinatown, Taxi Driver. I could go on. If you haven’t seen any of those films, open up a new browser window, go to Netflix, and load up your queue with some of the greatest American films ever produced.
Over the course of the past couple years, studios have started allowing directors to revisit the principles of that era, embracing the notion that they can make intelligent, creative movies helmed by visionaries, proving that audiences will go to movies that don’t have roman numerals in the title or are overrun with fart jokes. With the release of David O. Russell’s sublime American Hustle, the argument could be made that we are in the midst of a new golden era of American cinema.
Like many of the great films of the 1970s (and set in 1978), American Hustle mines its story from the seedy underbelly of American life, specifically two small-ish time con artists named Irving Rosenfeld (a paunchy, balding Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams). Both Irving and Sydney are seeking a sort of escape and re-invention, and gravitate to one another at a party, bound together by their mutual love for Duke Ellington.
The two embark on an affair that becomes wrapped up in their con that finds them offering to help those struggling with bad credit to secure international loans for a “small fee.” It is essentially the 1970’s version of the Nigerian prince scam. Enter eager, hungry young FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). He arrests Irving and Sydney, seeing in the duo a chance to lure in some bigger, career-making fish. Richie offers them a deal – help him catch four other people lured in by one of their scams, and the duo will go free. Sydney smells trouble and wants to run, but Irving opts to go along with DiMaso for fear of losing his son to his vindictive, unstable wife Rosalyn (Lawrence). Soon, the con begins spiraling out of control as the trio stumble across Carmine Polito (Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who is desperate to kick start Atlantic City development and put his constituents back to work, even if it means dabbling in some shady business dealings. Before long, there are fake Arab sheiks, Mafia henchmen, and corrupt politicians running through the con, and Irving finds himself treading deeper and deeper into territory that makes him uncomfortable, especially as he grows to like and admire Polito.
The film is based on the Abscam operation of the late 1970s, although the script by Russell and Singer takes tremendous liberties – changing names, adding characters, and creating a world that exists somewhere between the grit of Martin Scorsese’s early work and the bada-bing glamour of Ocean’s Eleven. The double crosses and shenanigans are truly entertaining until there are reminders of how real and dangerous the stakes are for these characters. There are some truly funny moments that are undercut by sudden bursts of violence as Irving, Sydney, and Richie struggle to stay in control of the situation. It is a movie that leaves you on edge, never entirely sure when things will fall apart and often pretty certain that true danger is just around the corner.
Part of the volatility lies in the performances delivered onscreen. Bale, Cooper, Adams, Lawrence, and Renner have never been better. They are not afraid to take their characters to truly ugly places. Bale’s performance stands at the center of the film, as he is probably the closest the film has to a protagonist. His physical transformation for the film is likely to have people talking – the paunchy gut that’s on display in the opening moments, the masterful wigwork that gives him the most complicated and elaborate combover I’ve ever seen – but Bale is so much more than that. His Irving is driven and vulnerable, filled with anger and compassion in equal measures. He is a man driven by a sense of honor, albeit one that is at times a bit warped. It’s taken me a while to get on the “Christian Bale is brilliant” train, and I still argue that he’s capable of some pretty weak stuff, but when he’s allowed to really revel in his art, he is a breathtaking actor to behold.
It would be easy for all of these actors to coast on laurels and ride their fame and good looks all the way to the bank. All have been involved in major blockbusters or have been connected to significant franchises. They could spend their careers making variations on those greatest hits, and the American moviegoing public would probably line up. Instead, they seek the challenge of working with an artist like David O. Russell and find new places to take their craft. Cooper masks his matinee idol good looks behind a beard and a pretty hilarious perm and gives us a volatile, selfish Richie who bullies his way through the operation, often resorting to violence with his superior (C.K.) who refuses his outlandish requests. While many of Cooper’s more volatile moments are played for laughs, there is something truly unsettling about his Richie every time he’s on screen. It’s a terrific performance and continues Cooper’s quest to break free of his Hangover persona.
Equally mesmerizing is Lawrence. While her Rosalyn clocks significantly less screen time than other characters, Lawrence leaves her mark with her flinty, fidgety performance. Rosalyn is a master manipulator, perhaps the most unlikable character in the movie being played by arguably the most likable actress in Hollywood right now. It is a fearless, bravura performance, proving Lawrence is destined for even greater heights. At times, watching her borders on uncomfortable as you struggle between hating the passive aggressive manipulation Rosalyn often employs and feeling embarrassed for her inability to cope with the life she’s trapped herself in. I dare you to see this film and not be haunted by her lip-syncing to “Live and Let Die.” (This is a good time to give a huge shout-out to the brilliant soundtrack for the film that perfectly combines great 1970s hits like Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” with a haunting Arabic version of “White Rabbit” with lounge hits like Tom Jones’s “Delilah” and just a dash of jazz courtesy of Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk.)
It’s movies like American Hustle that give me hope for American film, that make writing reviews a joy because it’s a chance to celebrate what a tremendous art form film can be. No matter what happens come Oscar-season, this is a film that will surely go down in the pantheon as one of the great films of the decade.