I am loath to compare any movie to Martin Scorsese’s 1991 masterpiece “GoodFellas,” one of the most singularly vibrant films in the history of cinema. In the case of “American Hustle,” however, I will say that this latest triumph from director and co-writer David O. Russell has the kind of throbbing pulse, wicked snap and sheer moviemaking bravado that makes it one of a very few films that can be mentioned in the same breath as that earlier classic.
As with his previous gem, “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell takes an idea that on paper absolutely shouldn’t work — four different unreliable narrators guide us through a funhouse version of the ABSCAM entrapment scheme — and makes it fly. More than that, actually, he makes it loop-de-loop and zoom to the clouds and buzz the tops of trees.
The movie opens with a pot-bellied Christian Bale elaborately gluing a toupee to his head and fluffing his comb-over around it, and for the next two-plus hours, “American Hustle” maintains that level of outrageous watchability. Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a dry-cleaner who runs successful art-forgery and personal-loan scams on the side. We see him fall madly in love with Sydney (Amy Adams), a self-made woman who shares his gift for fakery.
Despite the deepness of their bond, all is not well. For one thing, Irving’s got a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he calls “the Picasso of passive-aggressive.” (Indeed, at one point, Irving confronts Rosalyn over blurting out information that could cost him his life, and by the end of the conversation, he’s thanking her for it.) Rosalyn has a son, whom Irving has adopted, and she uses the boy to hang on to her man, refusing to grant him a divorce.
Irving’s bigger headache is Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent who has busted Sydney and Irving on one of their scams and is now forcing them to use their skills at duplicity to nab him some bigger fish. What starts out as a straightforward bust against beloved Camden, N.J., mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), whom Richie hopes to nab skimming a percentage of the money going into the construction of Atlantic City casinos, gets out of control very quickly.
Before long, Richie’s fake investment scheme is taking in not only congressmen and senators but also hardcore mobsters, the ones who aren’t going to play nice when this shell game eventually blows up. “American Hustle” forces us to change our affiliations constantly: Does Irving deserve Sydney? Is Sydney falling for Richie, or merely playing him? Is Carmine really a good guy at heart? Is Richie more duplicitous than the fraudsters he prosecutes? Does Rosalyn deserve happiness, and will she ever use a microwave oven without burning down the house?
Russell and Eric Singer’s whiz-bang script makes us wait for the answers, but part of what makes “American Hustle” so great is its ability, like its characters, to juggle multiple identities simultaneously. It’s a character piece, a thriller, a dark comedy and a con game all rolled in one, playing genre against genre in a way that’s riveting from start to finish.
Russell never plays the Carter-era excess for laughs, but he and his crew get the 1970s look just right, summoning yellows and browns and greens that haven’t been seen on film since “Good Times” went off the air. And fitting perfectly among the flocked wallpaper and turntables is his extraordinary ensemble cast.
Bale has never been funnier, but he never plays his chubby and be-wigged sleazeball for easy laughs. We see why his and Adams’ character go completely gaga for each other, but their portrayals don’t condescend; for all their aspirations and lapses in taste, they are the lids to each other’s pots. (After all, he’s a British actor playing American, and she’s playing an American who occasionally lapses into a hilariously iffy British accent as part of her crooked persona.)
And it’s not just the reuniting stars of “The Fighter” that excel here; so do “Silver Linings” vets Cooper and Lawrence, playing outsized eccentrics that could have been two-dimensional twits in lesser hands. (Lawrence also manages to give Adams a run for her money in Michael Wilkinson’s flashy, cleavage-riffic costumes.) Renner’s terrific, too, as a family man whose veneer of charm might hide some dark corners or, shockingly, genuine goodness.
Russell is one of this generation’s great directors of actors, and his entire ensemble is a thrill to watch, down to the walk-ons. (There are two immensely satisfying supporting turns from actors whose identity you should allow to be a surprise.)
Any number of movies have attempted to mimic the style and content of films by ’70s mavericks like Scorsese and Robert Altman, but rather than quote the masters, Russell instead channels their bravado, their chutzpah and their love of working without a net. The result is one of 2013’s most memorable movies, one that’s strong enough to have been one of 1979’s best as well.