There are many ways a film like American Hustle could have gone wrong. It’s got a big cast with characters that we really haven’t seen these actors play (Christian Bale as a Jewish, balding, middle-aged con man, really?) and a plot about a government scandal from the 1970s with a lot of moving pieces. Yes, there is a lot of room for error here, but David O’Russell and his gang of misfits have outdone themselves with this wildly entertaining film that will no doubt garner many statues come award season.
Bale plays Irving Rosenfield, a con man who falls madly in love with Amy Adam’s Sydney and uses her in some of his plays. The two end up being caught by FBI Agent Richie DiMasio, played by Bradley Cooper, and are forced to assist him in bringing down a New Jersey Mayor (Jeremy Renner) and eventually a whole group of crooked politicians. The narrative and style of the film is actually very reminiscent of Martin Scorcese’s gangster films with its careful placement of period music, use of tracking shots, and first-person narration. In many surprising ways, O’Russell’s even able to out-Scorsese Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street. Keep an eye out for a cameo later on in the film that suggests this inspiration.
Over the past five years, O’Russell has re-invented himself as a director and as a professional in Hollywood, churning out critical and financial hits like The Fighter and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. These are both films that involve personal stories about growth and acceptance and through O’Russell’s direction we have been able to witness an intimacy not often seen on film. Though American Hustle is a different kind of film entirely and more like his daring early work (If you haven’t seen Three Kings, do it now), it keeps in the spirit of O’Russell’s re-invention through the style of direction and grace in acting. In fact, many actors from both of O’Russell’s previous films have come out to play for this venture, including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence.
With a cast like this, American Hustle has the potential to sweep all four acting categories. Bale especially outdoes himself as a dodgy con man whose only saving grace seems to be his love for his mistress and his adopted son. For the role, he put on a good amount of weight and sports a not-so-very convincing comb-over, but these are only the external features of the performance. Though Irving has never been the greatest human being, he’s got the most passion out of any other character in the film and Bale brings an inherent likeability that makes him the hero of the story.
The antagonist, on the other hand, would have to be Cooper’s frenzied FBI Agent who will stop at nothing to win his case. Though Cooper is use to playing manic characters, this role has a lot of edge and wildness to it that makes for a very layered and exciting performance. Cooper shares some particularly hilarious scenes with a straight-laced Louis C.K., who plays his boss in the film. Jeremy Renner also steps in for a good portion of the film as a softhearted New Jersey Mayor trying to rebuild Atlantic City. Renner is perfectly fine in the role but is not given a lot to do as the main tension of the film grows and he’s generally overshadowed by the rest of the very talented cast.
In perhaps the two most effecting roles are Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. With the help of David O’Russell, these leading ladies have grown to be standouts in Hollywood and they do not disappoint. Adams has never been more engrossing and gives one of her best performances to date as the underappreciated lover and partner to Bale’s Irving. Lawrence, as well, gives a fiery and altogether outstanding performance as Irving’s demented wife. At only 22, she steals every scene she’s a part of and demands the attention of every viewer. Expect to see her on stage in a few months accepting award after award.
American Hustle, though inspired by true events, is an original film that seamlessly pieces together many elements from acting to story to music to direction. On top of great cast, it’s got a story that many can attach themselves to and no doubt be entertained. A must-see this holiday season.
Review by Harrison Richlin