American Hustle Review

A movie so deliciously absurd that it's almost tragic that it has to end after only two hours.

rating: 5

Towards the final act of David O. Russell's American Hustle, one character quips "Life is ridiculous." They might be right. This is a movie so deliciously absurd that it's almost tragic that it has to end after only two hours. Everyone's having too much fun to stop the party. Hustle is based very loosely - an early title card reads "Some of this actually happened" - on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s. The exact details matter little; it's the framework of the seedy 70s that give David O. Russell the backdrop he's looking for. Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, an overweight, combed-over con artist working a small scam operation in New York and Jersey; Amy Adams is Sydney, his mistress. Both actors' characters are playing characters of their own: Bale's follically challenged Irving is constantly playing the part of the smooth, always-in-control operator; Adams' Sydney is playing Edith, a British charmer who lures in potential clients. The point, as we're reminded throughout the film, is that everyone lies to themselves to get by. What's great about this is how liberating it is to see Bale and Adams acting against their type with so much self awareness. Bale, never one to shy away from physical transformations, has made his Irving legitimately hard to look at. The film's opening shots show him bloated and bald as he tries to piece together his hair. It's hilarious and a bit heartbreaking all at once. But he gains our trust as the film goes on the same way he gains the trust of his clients. Adams functions the same way, continuing to stretch out of the good girl archetype that she was locked into for so long. Both characters are consciously conning us; it's a testament to their skill and the film's script that we know that but buy in anyway.
Eventually Irving and Sydney draw the attention of Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent who's looking to make a name for himself. He catches and convinces them to avoid jail time by using their skills to help him catch some low level politicians taking bribes. Irving and Sydney agree, and as DiMasio's operation grows larger and larger and more out of control, everyone is pulled in deeper and left wondering who's playing who. For most directors, this would make a great crime movie. In Russell's hands it's a screwball affair, and he wisely lets the ever-expanding plot take the backseat to the characters and the actors making them work. Jeremy Renner arrives as a well meaning New Jersey politician, a key mark in DiMasio's plan and a potential ally for Irving. And then their Irving's wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), an outsider to the con business who nevertheless makes sure she's the center of every scene she worms her way into. In her previous team-up with Russell, last year's Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence brought a slightly capped craziness to her character, someone always threatening to burst but only occasionally going full Vesuvius. In American Hustle she's taken the lid off completely. There's a moment when she cleans the house while "Live and Let Die" blares in the background that could have gone on for another ten minutes without anyone complaining. She becomes simultaneously the most hilarious and sympathetic character in the movie without ever seeming to try. Certain actors have directors that know how to get the best out of them. I'm not anointing them as Scorsese-DeNiro just yet, but it's very possible that David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence are showing us the beginnings of a long, beautiful partnership.
The balancing act, of course, is that no matter how farcical or ridiculous American Hustle feels, Russell's still giving us a very real movie. His direction might get lost behind the performances, but he's really doing something incredible by giving this movie so much weight. We laugh, often uncontrollably, but we're always laughing at real characters. They have hopes and fears and dreams and desires that fuel the humor and the slight undercurrent of sadness that runs through the whole film. Yes, these people are making a mess of things, but really, they're only doing what they think they have to. And they'd be anywhere else if they thought they really could be. What it comes out as is a sort of Goodfellas-meets-Boogie Nights type affair. The style and sounds of the end of the Me Generation are all out in full force, as is the lust and hint of sex that always promises more than it delivers. Everyone is playing a part, and everyone's playing one another. We, the audience, end up being the ultimate mark. Russell's conning us into thinking American Hustle is just a comedy. What it really is is just plain great. American Hustle Ver6

David Braga lives in Boston, MA, where he watches movies, football, and enjoys a healthy amount of beer. It's a tough life, but someone has to live it.