Some caper films are sleek humming machines, but American Hustle is by David O. Russell, which means that it lurches and veers and speeds recklessly through hairpin turns. He used to go years between projects, but the resurgent filmmaker has now turned out his third movie in four years, and it’s become clear that the director of Silver Linings Playbook isn’t about tidiness and structure. Russell is about chaos, created for both comedy and suspense, and this who’s-conning-who movie delivers plenty of both.
The film was inspired by the real-life FBI sting known as Operation Abscam — a title card at the beginning informs us, “Some of this actually happened.” It begins when married small-time New York con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets former stripper-turned-Cosmopolitan employee Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They’re great together in bed and in his office, where Sydney puts on an accent and poses as an English noblewoman to attract clients to Irving’s business giving out phony loans. Their partnership goes swimmingly until 1978, when they’re busted by smarmy, fast-talking FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who threatens them with prison to force them to help the FBI catch white-collar criminals.
These characters are all expert liars — even Richie proves his untrustworthiness early on when he imprisons Sydney in an interrogation room for three days and then pretends to be horrified at her treatment. Irving and Sydney concoct counterplots to protect themselves as they work with the feds, and the web of deceit grows so extensive that mobbed-up New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) comes off as the pitiably naïve dupe here. By the same token, Irving’s angry wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) looks insane because she blurts out the truth at inconvenient times and is incapable of playing any angles. Then again, she can’t seem to stop setting her house on fire, so maybe calling her crazy isn’t entirely off-base.
As their operation begins to look like it could hook increasingly bigger criminals, Richie becomes manic and out of control — Russell’s specialty is guys like this — and the air of danger in his enterprise extends in all directions. This includes a hair-raising moment when a Mafia don (an uncredited Robert De Niro) catches out a Latino FBI agent (Michael Peña) who’s trying to pass himself off as an Arab sheikh, as well as Richie’s physical assault on his own plodding, by-the-book boss (Louis C.K.). The bureau’s higher-ups reward Richie for his act of violence, which is one of many piquant notes of comic insanity.
The starry cast promises fireworks, and they do not disappoint. Cooper slips easily into Richie’s frustrated ambition and growing megalomania, and Bale (sporting 40 extra pounds and a horrendous combover) does well with Irving’s desperation over a scheme that’s spiraling beyond him. Still, the women outshine the men here. Bless him, Russell is one filmmaker who’s willing to cast Adams as something other than a wholesome twinkling pixie, and her sexual energy lights up the movie — check her out as Sydney teases Richie by perching herself on the edge of a kitchen counter and swinging her bare feet suggestively. Lawrence, meanwhile, is a comic whirlwind, yet she finds the emotional neediness at the core of a volatile, unpredictable force in a delicate situation. These actors exhibit such a feel for each other’s rhythms that they come across like the cast of a long-running play. We get this in scene after finely tuned scene, from Irving’s vain attempt to keep Rosalyn at home away from an FBI-surveilled party, to a terrifying encounter when Sydney tries to come clean with Richie, to a ladies’ room smackdown between Sydney and Rosalyn, who wins the spat by planting a spiteful kiss on her husband’s mistress’ lips.
Some filmmakers stock their soundtracks with esoteric songs to prove their (or their music supervisor’s) good taste, but sometimes familiar songs illustrate a movie’s point better. Russell goes the latter route, which results in Rosalyn doing a scary, head-thrashing singalong to Wings’ “Live and Let Die” while she cleans her house. Even that doesn’t compare to the moment of sheer bliss when Irving’s besotted first glimpse of Sydney is accompanied by Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” An Arabic-language cover of “White Rabbit” makes an appearance, too.
The story pivots on Irving’s emotional attachment to Carmine, and the movie doesn’t do quite enough to convince us that the bribe-dispensing Carmine is the one good-hearted soul here. Even so, while this group of schemers is clad in Michael Wilkinson’s ’70s-licious costumes, they seem unexpectedly contemporary as they operate in an economy that, like ours, is marked by reduced expectations. They’re great fun to be around, too, as they frantically try to maintain their sanity while using their wits to keep from sinking into the muck. It all makes American Hustle into devious, savory, glorious entertainment.
Starring Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence. Directed by David O. Russell. Written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell. Rated R.