“American Hustle” Movie Review

     Any filmmaker would be considered successful with just one offering that is both a critical darling and a hit with mainstream audiences, but three in a row?  Director David O. Russell has pulled off the proverbial “hat trick”, following up his Oscar winning films “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” with the massively entertaining “American Hustle”.  Combining alums from both of his previous films, Russell has assembled an A-list cast for this film which is loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting operation that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s where several high profile politicians were convicted for taking bribes while in office.  Russell and Eric Singer’s script is brimming with interesting and sometimes complicated characters who, regardless of their tendency to operate on the wrong side of the law, are just plain fun to be around. You almost wish you could be there with them.

     Sporting a wicked combover Big Ern himself would be proud of, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a mid level con man who fronts as the owner of several Manhattan dry cleaning businesses, but makes his real money by way of loan sharking.  His partner and part time lover, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), adopts a British alter ego with ties to foreign banks to round out their scam of cheating people out of their money by way of what today would be referred to as a “Ponzi Scheme”.  Eventually, the feds step in, led by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who intends on using the duo to lead them to higher level criminals. 

     Style is a major part of the film’s visual appeal and Russell photographs his actors in a way that consistently focuses on certain attributes each character is given.  Sydney herself cites Irving’s hair issues and his lack of being in shape, yet as she falls for his charm and undeniable confidence, so does the audience.  In every way, Irving is sleazy, yet you root for him, knowing in the most dire of circumstances he will have something up his sleeve allowing him to somehow come out on top.  Sydney’s revealing outfits say plenty about her confidence and appeal.  She’s a woman who isn’t satisfied with her status quo, yet she clearly has a plan to take her life to the next level.  The connection between her and Irving is real, but like most things in life, the relationship is complicated on both the business and personal levels.

     Irving is married and his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is the queen of passive-aggressive behavior, consistently using the leverage of her young son, whom Irving deeply cares for, to ensure they stay married while getting what she wants.  I don’t know why Irving wastes his breath speaking with her since she’s always right and credits herself for everything that’s positive in their relationship and belittles Irving for everything that’s wrong.  She’s clearly miserable herself, yet sees the embarrassment of becoming the first divorcee in her family as reason to continue the relationship, even at the behest of Irving who tells her flat out they are not happy together.  The Rosalyn character is intriguing within the story as she functions as the one loose end that Irving can’t tie up when his involvement with Richie throws him into situations with high stakes and quite a bit on the line.

     Russell’s greatest achievement here is the ability to consistently give these very talented actors memorable moments throughout.  It’s hard to call any one of them a supporting player since each is crucially involved from beginning to end, chewing up scenery as if there’s not enough to go around. The actors clearly relish every moment they’re given and each gives performances which could measure as the best of their careers.  The dialogue reminded me of some of Tarantino’s best work, while the narrative structure harks to Scorsese’s most memorable mob films. What sets Russell’s films apart is his characters are not larger than life figures, rather they are everyday people all of us can relate to.  In some way they are flawed, yet they don’t see their negative qualities as a barrier to success.  Richie, who sports a hair perm throughout, is seen in his most vulnerable state at home with tiny pink curlers, yet the ensuing conversation he has over the phone tells us he accepts who he is and has his eye on the bigger prize.

     Supporting performances by an excellent Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. round out this outstanding cast in what has to be considered one of the best ensembles of the year. The rhythmic beats of the film’s timely 70s pop soundtrack significantly enhances every moment exactly where it’s needed and is never overbearing when the characters are front and center.  Expect nominations for the film’s writing and directing, as wells as noms for Lawrence and possibly Bale as well (it’s a crowded field this year). The film doesn’t necessarily pack the same emotional punch as Russell’s previous two films, but that’s not really expected here.  Actors are always judged on their range and there’s no doubt the four leads in “American Hustle” consistently demonstrate the ability to play a wide variety of characters.  Directors, in my mind, should be evaluated in the same way and “American Hustle” represents a successful departure from the subject matter and tone of Russell’s previous work, showing off a knack for originality few filmmakers possess. GRADE: A