On his way to the upper echelon of modern directing, the dexterous David O. Russell has shown mastery of multiple genres; the delightfully bold American Hustle is simultaneously a heist flick, a relationship comedy, a period piece, a social satire and, in a weird way, a noir. All of this chaos somehow works, because it’s been bundled as one of the smartest, funniest packages of the year.
A scruffy Christian Bale leads the way, again morphing his body as the portly, combover sporting Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time grifter with grand ambitions and an oversized desire to be loved. He finds his conniving soul mate in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a striking and sharp-witted former stripper with just as much drive as Irving, and maybe a bit more grit. Their courtship begins with a chitchat about Duke Ellington and crystalizes when Irving offers her the spoils left over at one of the dry cleaning stores he uses as a front. They stand in the middle of a spinning rack of forgotten furs and ball gowns, discovering each other and enraptured in a swirl of discarded garments and borrowed glamour. It’s the film’s signature moment—romantic, gorgeous and pathetic all at once.
Together, they build a phony empire selling stolen and forged art and fraudulent bank loans to wealthy dupes, with Syd using her fake posh British accent and plunging necklines to complete the illusion. It’s all champagne and shag carpeting for a time, until our illicit duo gets nabbed by aggressively ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso, played with trademark manic enthusiasm by Bradley Cooper. The hyped-up G-man offers the con couple immunity if they’ll help him trap the various big money whales, congressmen and mobsters involved in building Atlantic City’s nascent casino trade. As Mrs. Rosenfeld, Jennifer Lawrence commits full-scale larceny, stealing every second that she’s on screen.*
As in any movie about con artists, there is the creeping sensation that we are being set up, but the deceptions in American Hustle are so breathlessly presented that we don’t realize until too late that the message is hollow. In this conflicted, deceitful, capitalist fairy land, everything is a swindle, and everyone is on the take, but then the movie pivots and punishes one character a bit harshly for not being genuine in their intentions. That’s the rub: This is a grown-up story not so much about heroes as it is about winners, losers and most of all, survivors.
Dir. David O. Russell; writ. Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell; feat. Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence (R)
Opens Dec 20 at Santikos Bijou
* An earlier version of this story wrongly identified Jennifer Lawrence's role as that of the Mayor of Camden's wife.
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