There's a reason why American Hustle is one of the year's finest films and it has everything to do with the fact that co-writer/director David O. Russell was smart enough to make it an imperfect film.
That's right. American Hustle isn't a perfect film. After all, why would you make a perfect film about imperfect people doing imperfect things for imperfect reasons? There's something deliriously beautiful and ballsy about Russell's absolutely relentless commitment to creating a film that is simultaneously chaotic and screwy and precise and exhilarating.
The film kicks off with a title card that reads "Some of this actually happened," a clear sign that what you are about to witness is so wonderfully over-the-top and outrageous that it's hard to believe that there are really people in the world who could act this way. Co-written by Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle is at least partly inspired by the Abscam sting of the late 1970's that targeted public corruption and led to the conviction of six members of the House of Representatives, one U.S. Senator, one New Jersey State Senator, Philadelphia City-Council members, and an INS inspector. If you know the real life story, then you can see the framework that Russell builds from and the inspired ways in which he allows the story to grow into a wonder all its own.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) owns a small chain of New York City dry cleaners, but his main line of work centers around the art of the con. Whether it's forging art works or "securing" loans, you can pretty much be sure that if Irving is doing it then somebody's getting conned. He meets his true partner in crime when he stumbles across Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), an Albuquerque born woman with "girl next door" looks and a willingness to use them, plus that faux British accent, to get where she wants to get in life. Things go just fine for Irving and Sydney until they stumble across a loose-cannon FBI agent named DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who seems determined to make a name for himself and who busts the duo but offers them a deal if they'll agree to help him snag a few more baddies.
With hints of early Scorsese and whiffs of The Sting and, perhaps most importantly, a style all Russell's own, American Hustle finds brilliance in the faded excesses of the late 1970's when the hustle was far more than just a dance. It's hard not to wonder if American Hustle is the kind of relevant yet perceptive comedy that Russell has been shooting for all these years and certainly with the good idea turned bad cinema I Heart Huckabees.
While many true cineastes still seem to carry a bit of a grudge when it comes to David O. Russell courtesy of his reputation for volatility, the simple truth is if you've been watching his career over these past few years you can't help but acknowledge a tremendous growth as a filmmaker and a maturity in his films that is creating some of this decade's most interesting and involving films. Russell is far from the only artist with a reputation for edginess, just look at Bale, but there's a clarity to Russell's filmmaking now and that, coupled with surrounding himself with actors and actresses who clearly "get" his artistic vision has allowed the director to become a bold, visionary and pretty darn remarkable filmmaker.
It does help to surround yourself with terrific performers and Russell has certainly done so with American Hustle. Christian Bale, one of Hollywood's masters of physical transformation, literally becomes the pot-bellied and combed over Irving Rosenfeld. In one of the film's early scenes, Sydney acknowledges that Irving really isn't that much to look at, but she's drawn to his confidence and, indeed, Bale brings that quiet confidence to life in a way that makes you understand.
As Sydney, Amy Adams seems to revel in the opportunity to play something other than a true "girl next door." Much like her turn in P.T. Anderson's The Master, American Hustle offers Adams the chance to show the luminous nature of her darkside and yet she takes what could have so easily been a one-note character and brings her gorgeously to life. Bradley Cooper, as Agent DiMaso, seems to exist somewhere uncomfortably between incredibly ambitious and downright creepy yet Cooper's performance is one of discipline and restraint and relentlessly smirky delight.
As brilliant as is our leading players, American Hustle is nearly stolen by the energetic and inspired performances of Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner, the former an Oscar winner and the latter a two-time nominee whose most recent film choices have been anything but inspired. In what is a relatively brief appearance, Lawrence is the other woman who is really the main woman as Irving's estranged but they're still together wife. For all his flaws, Irving is a devoted family man who refuses to leave his son with a mother who is so scattered she nearly burns down their house when she falls asleep under a sun lamp. While some would accuse Lawrence of being a bit over-exposed given that virtually everyone and everything in Hollywood has fallen in love with the refreshingly authentic and immensely talented young actress, the simple truth is she keeps churning out top notch work film after film. Taking a role that could have easily been nothing but a caricature, Lawrence breathes life and love and loss into this over-the-top, flirty and vivacious young woman who sort of resembles the Jean Harlow type from Hollywood's golden years.
It's a brilliant performance. Once again.
Renner is also at the top of his game as Carmine Polito, an altruistic New Jersey mayor whose ambitions may or may not get the best of him but whose sheer authenticity leads Rosenfeld to a bit of a moral crisis. Renner's Carmine is both joyously over-the-top and surprisingly heartfelt in that New Jersey "I've got your back" kind of way. There are a couple other bit players along the way who make a positive impression and leave you basking in Russell's 70's afterglow.
Production credits for American Hustle are terrific across the board including Linus Sandgren's lensing, Danny Elfman's original score, Judy Becker's gaudy, faded yet sparkling production design, and Michael Wilkinson's bold yet memorable costume design.
A surefire Best Picture nominee for this year's Academy Award, American Hustle may not break any box-office records but it will most assuredly appeal to those who embrace the real craft of filmmaking and the absolute joy one experiences when watching fantastic actors at the top of their game.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic