Getting Conned Never Felt Better in “American Hustle”

It takes a skilled director, a top notch cast, and superb writing to make a film that is unpredictable yet consistently enjoyable. But director David O. Russell’s American Hustle is just that. The film is slippery, twisty, and refuses to let the audience ever get a firm grasp on the narrative until the very end. If you let it take you for a ride, you won’t regret where you end up.

The film loosely follows the real life government sting known as Abscam, which infamously took down multiple corrupt politicians in the late 1970s. Our story follows con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner in crime/mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are coerced by the federal government, specifically FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), into catching other con artists and corrupt officials in exchange for their freedom. But with their web of lies growing every day, our characters find themselves conning each other, and themselves, in every aspect of their lives.

It’s not unlike other con and heist movies that have been shown on the silver screen over the years. But really, American Hustle isn’t about the story, it’s about the experience.

Russell makes the film into a frenetic, almost manic, exploration of its characters and the schemes they pull on one another. At times, the movie even seems sloppy, but it’s on purpose. It keeps the film mentally and emotionally engaging. There are no lulls. Scenes are frantically paced and spliced together in a manner that constantly keeps viewers on their toes. Shots zoom in and out, cameras whip across a scene, and the story changes pace at a moment’s notice.  Entire scenes are sometimes skipped, only for quick flashbacks to filter in later, informing viewers and layering in action as characters talk. It’s dizzying, but not confusing.

The film also heavily uses music from the time period, letting entire scenes revolve around a song. One scene in particular, centered on a character maniacally singing and dancing along with Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” is exceedingly odd, but it fits with the character and the style of the film.

American Hustle is also strengthened by its story’s refusal to pigeonhole characters into specific roles and the grayness of its morality. The con artists have real emotions and Cooper’s FBI agent is filled with manic tendencies. Even Jennifer Lawrence’s character of Rosalyn, Irving’s mentally unhinged wife, shows some layers of depth throughout the film.

As the subject of the entire sting operation, Jeremy Renner’s Mayor Carmine Polito is likeable from the moment he’s introduced. The film could have easily made him into a clichéd corrupt politician. Instead, he’s a man who’s willing to bend the rules in order to help the state of New Jersey and not someone that deserves to be punished.

So with all of these elements, how do you classify this film? Is American Hustle a crime drama? A comedy? A character study? It’s all of them.

Throughout all of the high stakes drama, Russell manages to deftly balance humor and real emotion. Character interactions and entire scenes are hilarious, but also draw viewers further into the story. Several running gags, including Cooper’s impatient/psychotic interactions with his FBI supervisor (played by a sheepish Louis C.K.) are absurdly funny without becoming cartoonish.

But it also knows how to ratchet up the tension when real danger enters the story. Specifically, a scene with a bristling and dangerous mobster is nerve-fraying. But the performances on display make it impossible to not watch.

The film is filled to the brim with high caliber actors who sink into their roles, often disappearing into new personalities and unlikely appearances. Almost the entire cast, including a surprise cameo, is drawn from Russell’s last two movies: Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter. It seems the director has found the right people for his style of storytelling and is pushing them to their acting limits.

Bale delivers another trademark extreme physical transformation. This time gaining lots of weight and going bald for the sake of a hideous comb-over. But it’s his performance that really makes him feel like a different person. He’s charming but vulnerable while also being consistently hilarious. His reactions, exasperation, and the range of emotions that play across his face show he has a real grasp on comedy that stays realistic.

Adams’ Sydney may wear the smallest amount of clothing possible at all times, but she’s not just there for looks. Her character does what she has to do to survive and succeed, even completely changing her personality. Lawrence once again proves that she has a real talent for playing unstable characters. And while her character sometimes becomes more of a caricature than a real person, she grabs the audience’s attention when on screen and delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs. Likewise, Cooper is nearly unrecognizable in his horrific jerry curl and with an attitude far removed from the suave roles he often plays.

There’s not much deeper meaning to American Hustle. Themes of deception of others and of the self inform much of the story, but in the end, the film is meant to be a wild and funny ride. Combined with being a powerhouse of acting, writing, cinematography, and direction, you’ll enjoy being taken for a ride.

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