Director David O. Russell follows up his critically acclaimed (but awful) film Silver Linings Playbook with American Hustle, a return to form for the director and a mighty fine example of how to craft a conman comedy that’s smart, dynamic, layered and absolutely hilarious. American Hustle is David O. Russell embracing everything weird about the 70’s with lots of life and energy and yet somehow managing to squeeze Oscar-worthy performances out of his core cast. This is a film that shouldn’t work as effectively as it does, but O. Russell’s writing and directing is superbly honed on this one and it’s absolutely phenomenal.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is an experienced conman. He’s fat, rocks a weird comb-over and generally comes off as someone that worries a little too much, but this worrying simply makes him the best man at conning. He loves it when a plan comes together, which is almost always, because he’s so particular and crafty with his execution.
His new assistant Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is just as convincing as he is, picking up and putting down accents when needed and being extra helpful when it comes to persuading their “clients” to fall for their latest scams. Together, the two are perfect, feeding off of their own screw ups in life to help build their relationship into the perfect balance of conning and discovering. They both use conning as a way of exposing people for who they really are, while also attempting to rationalize their own lifestyles.
Things get heavy when they get caught by young and overzealous F.B.I. agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso’s plan is to use Irving and Sydney to help lock up corrupt officials, but quickly his own ego takes over and suddenly they’re taking down organized crime too.
American Hustle is David O. Russell finding his footing after completely losing it with Silver Linings Playbook. That movie was a prime example of too much O. Russell weirdness, which bleeds out through his writing and into his kinetic direction. O. Russell has a way with his stars and creating characters that are often-times complex and full of particular humor and much drama. SLP steered a little too far to the right, while American Hustle firmly plants itself back in that middle position.
The film operates well as a comedy, taking advantage of the film’s 70’s setting to throw in pop culture references to hairstyles, costumes and music, yet never becoming obnoxiously focused on the time frame. This is O. Russell playing in the 70’s, but keeping the story relevant and timeless. After all, this is your basic conman story, but O. Russell retools it in a way that feels fresh and new and not exactly like you’d expect.
American Hustle captures real life, reminding the viewer that life isn’t black and white, but instead different shades of grey. O. Russell best presents this concept through his core characters. All of the key players of the film are good people, but good people that go down roads that make them worse off. Some find a way back, while some don’t.
Jeremy Renner plays Mayor Carmine Polito. Polito is genuinely nice and a man that wants to do right by the people that he represents, but money is tight and the idea of getting some quick cash to help better the people becomes his character’s turning point down that dark road. Renner plays Polito with real class, highlighting the man’s natural kindness and good intentions, even if they’re bribed by money and corruption.
Christian Bale‘s Irving is smart, funny, quick on his feet, but also stricken with guilt. He’s the conman with a conscience. Don’t let that fool you though, because he’s still a conman and an incredibly bright one. Bale packs on some weight and sports a questionable haircut in what might be his best performance since O. Russell’s The Fighter.
Bradley Cooper finally takes advantage of his pretty boy smile in a role that plays to his strengths and shows us just how good his acting chops really are. DiMaso starts out as a likable guy just trying to take advantage of a good situation, but the more his phoniness is revealed the more it becomes apparent that he’s just as scummy and idiotic as the men that Irving and Sydney take advantage off through their various scams. DiMaso is also a self-centered asshole with a temper that quickly makes him the film’s least-enjoyable character, but these are all good things for Cooper, who sells it with more than simple pouting. The film challenges him and he comes back with a performance that plays to his stereotypes as an actor, while also exposing so much more to DiMaso that wouldn’t have felt nearly as important if it wasn’t for Cooper’s understanding of the character.
Jennifer Lawrence shines in the film as Irving’s wife Rosalyn, capturing the film’s complicated dynamic through her completely crazy performance. There’s a specific scene between her and Bale that captures O. Russell’s trademark storytelling. It’s so authentically complex, making you pull out your hair one minute and then bursting with laughter the next. These are the moments that separate David O. Russell‘s films from the rest and seeing this one and so many others like it in the film are reasons why O. Russell’s name comes with so much hype.
Amy Adams and Louis C.K. might not get much space in my review, but that’s only because both performers always impress and watching them work with O. Russell only means that they’re going to continue to do so. Adams’ ability to add such likable mystery to her character is great, keeping the audience guessing on just who’s conning who until the very end, while Louis C.K.‘s extended cameo proves that the comedian can make you laugh while holding a straight face through the entire film.
American Hustle is that rare piece of Oscar bait that actually earns all of its strong buzz. I’d be the first to let you know if David O. Russell‘s latest succumbed to the cookie-cutter expectations that most expect around this time of year. American Hustle is more in line with The Fighter and O. Russell’s past work. Its writing is clever, bizarre and quick, while never going overboard with its characters, like Silver Linings Playbook. Plus, O. Russell turns stellar performances from Bale and Lawrence, while squeezing out some mighty fine work from Cooper, Renner, Adams and Louis C.K.
American Hustle is a well-rounded 70’s conman caper that constantly surprises with its amount of laughter and craziness that comes off feeling both genuine and strange at the same time, which tends to be an O. Russell trademark. His ability to tell such wild tales that almost always feel personal and relatable through their characters and the way that they handle themselves and their relationships with others is unique and something that only he can nail down with such effectiveness.
American Hustle – 8.5/10