Who is going to stop David O. Russell? With American Hustle, the writer/director has managed to not only keep his streak of Oscar-worthy films alive, but Russell challenges himself, his actors, and his audience to evolve; to rethink their perspectives on the American Dream and what it takes to survive, let alone thrive, in a cannibalistic shark tank where greed, ignorance, and ambition turn everyone left standing into a guilty party. But if the sky is the limit, what is the true cost of flying so close to the sun?
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) has been a con man since he was a kid throwing rocks through windows of local storefronts, only so his father could sell the business owners the replacement glass. Irving is clever, charming, and more importantly, good at what he does: running small-time cons, selling fake art from famous painters and collecting referral fees from desperate people for loans he knows they’ll never qualify for. Rosenfeld is a success despite himself; an overweight hunchback hiding his bald scalp with the most elaborate comb-over the world has ever seen. Yet, he’s the most attractive guy in the room. He reeks of charisma, street smarts, and dirty money, which turns out to be Sydney Posser’s (Amy Adams) favorite cologne. Sydney is a down-on-her-luck dancer that Irving happens across at a party and immediately gravitates towards. The two fall madly in love, drunk on the most sincere feelings they’ve had in recent memory. When Sydney jumps at the chance to become part of Irving’s loan scheme, it seems like they were made for each other.
That is, until the con is too successful and attracts the attention of FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso is a wild, bratty man-child wielding a gun and badge, whose ambition can only be rivaled in measure by the care that he puts into his Jheri Curl. In lieu of a prison sentence, Richie proposes that Irving and Sydney work for him to coerce the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), into facilitating bribes to Congressmen. Polito is an earnest-if-naive hometown hero that loves his family and community, a true doe-eyed mark if there ever was one. This bust would be a career maker for DiMaso; it doesn’t matter to him that it’s entrapment. The sting operation is jeopardized by Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s unpredictable firecracker of a wife that inserts herself into the con to retain some sense of relevance with Irving. As they go deeper down the rabbit hole for their own greedy reasons and the hustle gives way to high stakes with a renown gangster (Robert DeNiro), the characters (and audience) start to lose track right and wrong and who’s conning who. It’s a symphony of manipulation, and it’s an absolute delight to watch.
American Hustle just feels real; it’s all at once an intimate tale and yet one that everyone can relate to. It’s heady material grounded in visceral reaction; a character study as much as it is a story. The ensemble cast embodies their parts entirely. Amy Adams is flat-out incredible in this movie. Christian Bale, again, transforms himself into Irving Rosenfeld, gaining serious weight for the role and completely disappearing into his character. Bradley Cooper is ambitious in his portrayal of FBI Agent DiMaso, playing Richie as a flawed, unlikable loose cannon. And Jennifer Lawrence, described by Irving as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” steals every single frame she’s in. Simply, the Academy should be paying attention. But what makes American Hustle one of the best movies of the year is David O. Russell. The tone is so spot on, drenched in 1970’s swagger where anything is possible if you dream big. The sweeping camera and continuous tracking shots not only keep the pace and stakes high, it also gives the tremendous performances room to breathe. Watching American Hustle felt like the first time I saw Goodfellas; what better compliment is there than that?