“Some of this actually happened,” reads the opening credit of David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” although it could equally apply to any of the filmmaker’s previous works. Russell’s freewheeling approach to portraying downtrodden Americans fighting to achieve small personal victories pervades his movies so comprehensively that they may as well exist in his own invented universe. Yet they also maintain a heightened realism through Russell’s caustic, loose screenplays, which rely on high energy performances that allows the humanity of his characters to hover over the material and transcend its fixed ingredients. They aren’t just the stars of the show — they steal it, which makes this tale of con artists in the late seventies into ideal turf for Russell to run wild.
Needless to say, story comes second to Russell over the rhythms of well-timed bickering, which is a blessing and a curse in “American Hustle”: A confident, polished work, it’s also a tangled caper about criminals and the FBI enmeshed in a convoluted scheme that’s beside the point — and yet, with its 137 minute running time, there’s so much of plotting that sometimes the movie seems as though it’s engaged in the same identity crisis assailing its leads. But the Frankenstein narrative holds a unique allure.
Before anyone in “American Hustle” starts talking, Russell gives us a single cogent image: Conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) glaring at himself in a hotel mirror, packing a significant paunch, his hair jutting upward from a bald scalp as he prepares to apply an unruly combover. The actor’s barely recognizable, and becomes increasingly buried in the performance as he awkwardly wrestles with his hairpiece, establishing the slapstick tone and the story’s main theme with a single comic bit.
Set in New Jersey in 1978, “American Hustle” is all about people wearing costumes, literally and otherwise, to hide their agendas. Building on a screenplay originally written by Eric Singer, Russell uses as a foundation the famous FBI Congressional corruption probe Abscam, in which federal agents worked with con artist Mel Weinberg to ensnare politicians accepting bribes. The plan was too ambitious for its own good, partly because it stemmed from the daring objective of a reckless federal agent mainly intent on landing his own victories. In “American Hustle,” that role falls to a wide-eyed Bradley Cooper as agent Richie DiMaso, who forces Rosenfeld and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to help the FBI with his ambush plans after he busts the couple for running a phony investment firm.
But “American Hustle” starts after these pieces have already been put in motion: The couple have begrudgingly started working for DiMaso to capture the local mayor (Jeremy Renner) accepting a bribe. When it flashes back to explain how they got there, Russell hesitates, focusing instead on the courtship between Rosenfeld and Prosser, a passionate young woman with a vague origin story drawn to Rosenfeld’s confidence (if not his body type). It’s only once their get-rich-quick plot takes off that DiMaso enters the picture and ensnares them in an even riskier gamble.
By then, it’s practically irrelevant. While peppered with multiple voiceovers to display various perspectives on the situation, nobody comments much on the actual plan of offering false bribes to politicians for casino licenses. When Prosser describes Rosenfeld’s allure, she says that he’s “so careful and precise about every stylistic detail,” an observation that could apply to their eventual scams — but doesn’t. “American Hustle” is predominantly concerned with the personalities of its ensemble ahead of their specific actions.
But that’s not to say the actual scam doesn’t hold some appeal. In some ways a companion piece to last year’s “Argo” — another fluffy, late seventies-set tale of a complicated government-funded ploy — “American Hustle” delves into agent DiMaso’s plan by taking cues from his excitement over it. Battling out his intentions with a bumbling superior (Louis C.K., in typically amusing deadpan mode), DiMaso sets his sights on a well-intentioned mayor (Jeremy Renner) interested in the casino deal in the hopes that it can aid other forms of urban development. The entrapment plan gets increasingly thorny once Rosenfeld befriends the mayor; meanwhile, his female partner sets her sights on seducing the agent forcing them to go through with his ploy, leading to mixed results for everyone involved. It’s certainly amusing to watch Russell stack the deck with a half dozen disconnected story ingredients and wait for the entire house of cards to crumble. But Russell is more concerned with the nimble process off putting it together than pulling it apart.
By the time the team has cast a fake Arab sheik (Michael Peña in a cheeky cameo) and managed a meeting with a major Jersey crime lord (another cheeky cameo best left as a surprise), it’s clear that nobody really understands what they’re doing, least of all the man responsible for it all. As DiMaso, Cooper offers up a more enterprising riff on the irascible head case he played in Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” with bigger plans but the same wild impulsiveness. While just as much of a hot head, Rosenfeld has a better grasp on the situation and understands how to use DiMaso’s hubris to his advantage. As they argue about practical challenges, more meaningful issues awkwardly bubble up. “We’re all conning each other one way or another just to get through life,” Rosenfeld explains in voiceover.
As it careeners into its final act, “American Hustle” makes that point a bit too bluntly, and by the time it arrives at certain big reveals they’ve been a long time coming. The giddy vitality of Russell’s cast can’t always overcome the redundancies of its pace, and it often has the slack qualities of an overindulgent acting exercise.
But what an exercise. Much has already been made about Jennifer Lawrence’s show-stealing performance as Rosenfeld’s estranged wife Rosalyn, a booze-guzzling, hot-tempered troublemaker who one-ups Melissa Leo in “The Fighter” as the most spectacular female presence in the pantheon of Russell’s creations. Described by Rosenfeld as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” Rosalyn has a near-psychotic demeanor that makes everyone around her look largely restrained, and in this movie, that’s saying something.
In light of the ferocity that she brings to the role, Adams’ performance as the other woman in Rosenfeld’s life has a far more subdued quality that never manages the same definition achieved by the rest of the cast. Overstatement is everything in “American Hustle” and overwhelms the subtler ingredients of its atmosphere. Even the soundtrack, a constant bombardment of hits from the likes of Duke Ellington, Donna Summer and Tom Jones, often jumps into the center of the action.
Even so, the blithe dimensions of its world can’t obscure the story’s legitimate focus on disgruntled romantics grappling with the conundrums keeping them down. By making this struggle go down so easy, Russell turns the pursuit of the American dream into the ultimate escapism. Despite the flashy period details, “American Hustle” maintains an appeal that’s resolutely modern.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony releases “American Hustle” in New York and L.A. on December 13th ahead of a nationwide expansion on December 18th. A combination of strong critical support and the appeal of its cast should propel to strong returns through the New Year, and it should remain a major player in the awards season in several categories.