Silver Screen: American Hustle ****1/2
American Hustle opens with one of the all-time great disclaimers in movie history. In lieu of the traditional “Based on a true story” or the more conveniently vague “Inspired by true events,” director and cowriter David O. Russell opts for a straightforward qualifier: “Some of this actually happened.” It’s a perfectly beguiling beginning to a movie in which the truth is frequently contingent and malleable. By acknowledging that he might be putting one over on the audience, Russell confounds our impulse to separate the truth from the fiction that suits his purposes. It’s a hell of a grift.
American Hustle is indeed rooted in history, or is at least adjacent to it. The FBI really did enlist the services of a con man to help orchestrate its Abscam sting operation, which expanded from a crackdown on thievery and fraud to an investigation into political corruption that led to the convictions of several politicians, including congressmen and a U.S. Senator. Some of the characters have direct historical counterparts, notably Christian Bale’s flimflam-man protagonist and the soon-to-be-disgraced New Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner, but more than just the names and locations have been changed. The fictionalization allows Russell to embellish his wonderfully outlandish character study unencumbered by the demands of a traditional biopic.
The head hustler here is Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), a small-time swindler who uses the tiny business he inherited from his father as a front for forgery and stolen art. He steps up his game when he meets bunco babe Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whose ambitions and amorality are simpatico with his own. Their relationship is complicated by the presence of Irving’s tempestuous wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and later by the intrusion of careerist FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who busts our con-artist couple and forces them to assist in his Abscam sting. But Richie’s judgment is clouded by his infatuation with Sydney, and the Abscam plot threatens to fall apart as it swells to include politicians and mobsters as its targets.
The film is itself something of a hustle. Irving’s scams work because he’s able to convincingly fabricate textures and details to make a business proposition seem plausible without having anything tangible to back it up. Similarly, Russell dazzles with soundtrack, set design, and comedic momentum, so much so that only in retrospect do some obvious questions arise about what, if anything, American Hustle has to say, about its negligible historical value, and about a complex plot that ultimately amounts to fairly little. For all its flash, American Hustle is mostly very well-dressed entertainment.
But what entertainment. This may be a case of style over substance, but that style is substantial. Every detail of the film appears perfectly executed. The Academy may have to invent new categories for this year’s Oscars just to encompass the excellence. Best Pompadour for Jeremy Renner. Best Wallpaper and Carpeting for Lawrence’s 1970s-tastic house. Best Tease, which would be a tie between Lawrence’s hairstylist and Lawrence herself. A Lifetime Achievement Award for Best Use of a Plunging Neckline by Amy Adams, and a corresponding technical award for her costume designer for Excellence in the Field of Dress-and-Nipple Tape.
The casting is spot-on, without a doubt the best assembly of an ensemble in any year in recent memory. The often grim, self-serious Bale is fantastic; rather than glowering his way through another production he reminds us of the actor who showcased dirtbag charisma in The Fighter and the dark hilarity in American Psycho. Adams and Lawrence are so electric it seems that if they would appear in a scene together the screen might melt— and then, when finally they do cross paths, this hyperbole seems like it might literally come true. Cooper fuses the manic intensity he brought to Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook with the willingness for extreme self-deprecation he showed in the underrated Hit and Run. Bit players Jack Huston, Michael Pena, and Shea Whigham elevate tiny roles, while Louis C.K. shines in a couple of particularly hilarious scenes, and Robert De Niro uses every bit of his mob-movie cred in a single phenomenal scene.
Rarely are prestige movies this much fun, and even more rarely does a movie so thoroughly entertaining come with such a high pedigree.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.