Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Director: David O' Russell
From the opening minutes of American Hustle, you get a sense of the unconventional tone of this story. There's Christian Bale, unrecognizable as the paunchy owner of a dry-cleaning business, doing an elaborate comb-over by gluing on strands of hair to his bald pate. Moments later, he's a suave fixer. Nothing is what it seems in this 1970s New York City-based caper. As the tagline goes: Everyone hustles for a living.
Yet, what keeps you invested in these characters is what's going on with their hearts and lives, underneath their shiny facades and home perms. Every kooky person here is bouncing off the emotional grid, crazy in their own little way. Each, after all, is involved in a wild scheme inspired by a real-life sting operation that took place in the 70s. American Hustle is the fictionalized drama based on the Abscam scandal, an FBI operation that enlisted the help of con artists to nab crooked Congressmen.
One has begun to bank on director David O' Russell as the go-to guy for an exhilarating time at the movies. After The Fighter and last year's Silver Linings Playbook, he now gives us giddy fun with American Hustle, starring alumni from those two films. Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a New Jersey shyster whose legit business is dry-cleaning, but who dreams big by giving out phony bank loans and selling forged art. Into his life walks ex-stripper Sydney (a luminous Amy Adams), who is only too happy to fake a British accent and adopt the name 'Lady Edith' to help him rip off more people. The pair lives it up, flirting incorrigibly, dancing in ballrooms and loving it up in bed.
Complications arise when an over-enthusiastic FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) forces them into a partnership to trap greedy Congressmen. The other thorn in their side is Irving's jealous, unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who is unwilling to give her husband a divorce. In one laugh-out loud scene, Irving describes her as the "Picasso of passive-aggressive karate". Despite their misgivings, Irving and Sydney are roped into Di Maso's elaborate plan to nail politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Unfortunately, the operation comes under threat because of Di Maso's impatient ambition and Rosalyn's big mouth.
Beneath the thrill of the tense FBI operation is the vulnerability of the four characters. This crackling screenplay feeds itself off their longing and comical awkwardness. Irving watches his life spin out of control when Di Maso falls deeply under Sydney's spell, while she plays the FBI agent so she can get back at Irving for not leaving his wife. The sexual tension between Di Maso and Sydney virtually thrums, but you see her pain each time she throws wounded looks at Irving.
Director David O' Russell gifts us fantastic moments in 'American Hustle' - like that magical swish of laundered clothes forming a ring of dreamy love around Irving and Sydney. Or that hilarious running gag involving Di Maso's boss (played wonderfully by Louis CK). The two constantly argue over budgets for the operation, even as his boss repeatedly cautions Di Maso with a half-finished morality tale on ice-fishing. The film has a nice air of unpredictability hanging over it throughout. What are the chances of a menacing mob boss (Robert De Niro in a scene-stealing cameo) breaking into Arabic in the middle of a tense negotiation? And what happens when the green-eyed wife and the bitter mistress finally run into each other in a washroom? Not what you'd expect.
'American Hustle' is filled to the brim with heightened emotions that seem to spill into its sexy soundtrack. The film is anchored, however, by its performances. Christian Bale is bang-on as the pill-popping con artist, on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of the tension of this operation and the stress of juggling two women. Bradley Cooper plays the goofball in broad strokes. Quick-tempered and mercurial, he's the player who inevitably gets played himself. It's the women, incidentally, who get the juiciest scenes. Amy Adams is in moments all heart, and at other times a cleavage-baring vixen. Jennifer Lawrence aces it as the loose cannon Rosalyn, so clueless that she manages to set off fires with basic kitchen equipment. She's all bluster, and Lawrence plays the part in seductive, side-splitting spurts.
O Russell knows how to you hook you to his quirky characters, but also laces his film with witty dialogues, and cinematography and production design that add real texture. I'm going with four out of five for 'American Hustle'. It's possibly the most fun I've had at the movies in a long, long time, and like the perfect restaurant meal it leaves you keen to make a second visit soon.