David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” opens with a title card that playfully states: “Some of this actually happened.” But considering that the movie was originally titled “American Bullshit” and is populated with characters who are bullshit specialists, it’s meant to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Russell has adapted what was an already outlandish story into a ’70s-styled farce filled with a flying circus of conmen, feds, politicians and casino mobsters. Immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and featuring excellent performances from its entire cast, “American Hustle” is one of the year’s absolute best films and a serious contender for every major award.
When we first meet Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), he’s seen carefully assembling his elaborate comb over with a combination of a toupee, glue and lots of hairspray. But what the paunchy conman lacks in good looks, he makes up for with confidence and intellect, which is what’s made him so successful at ripping people off. Everything changes when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who partners with Irving under the guise of a British businesswoman with royal connections named Lady Edith. Their business practically triples overnight, drawing the attention of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who catches the pair red-handed and forces them to work undercover for the bureau. Richie wants to make a name for himself by taking down some white-collar criminals, and his first target is Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a family man so desperate to revitalize the New Jersey economy that he’s willing to get his hands a little dirty in the process. It quickly turns into a game of who’s conning who, and yet the one thing that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down isn’t their mistrust in each other, but Irving’s unpredictable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
That’s a lot of story to wrap your head around, especially in an exposition-heavy first act, but the acting is so great across the board that it never feels overwhelming in any way. Though Christian Bale was given a much meatier role in his first collaboration with Russell (“The Fighter”), the actor plays the straight man here to good effect, and his grounded performance is key to all the craziness that takes place around him. Irving is clearly the smartest guy in the room, but he’s given such little freedom to work his magic that you can almost see the anxiety building up inside him as the con becomes too big, too fast. Bale has never been one to shy away from completely throwing himself into a part, and in addition to gaining 40 pounds to play Irving, he also reportedly herniated two discs due to the slouched posture that he adopted during production.
The other cast members aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good. Amy Adams oozes sexiness as Irving’s cunning partner in crime, playing a character completely different than what we’re used to seeing from the actress, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the short-tempered, motor-mouthed federal agent who becomes obsessed with his latest case. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence who steals the show once again in what is arguably the flashiest role of the bunch. Watching the Oscar winner lip-synch to “Live and Let Die” as she angry cleans her house is worth the price of admission alone. Jeremy Renner also turns in a solid performance with his limited screen time, although he’s not nearly as memorable as the main quartet, and the same goes for Louis C.K.’s passive FBI supervisor, who doesn’t quite stack up to the other talent, but earns some good laughs regardless.
In fact, the movie as a whole is a lot funnier than you might expect, and that’s due not only to Cooper and Lawrence’s larger-than-life performances, but the darkly comic script by Russell and Eric Singer. Though some might argue that the movie is a tad long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would gladly spend another hour in their messed-up world. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with – especially with this stable of actors at his disposal – because “American Hustle” is right up there alongside “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” as a superb piece of American cinema.