With Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence. Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. Directed by David O. Russell. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence. 138 minutes.
AMERICAN HUSTLE joins the pantheon of great con job movies with “The Sting,” “House of Games” and “Wild Things.” This is a movie where everyone’s on the make, everyone has an angle, and no one – absolutely no one – is to be trusted.
The script credited to Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell is itself a con job, mixing fact and fiction as they put their characters in with the real life late ‘70s “Abscam” scandal, in which the FBI used a fake Arab sheik to entice Washington politicians to take bribes. The pols are looking for money, the FBI is looking for incriminating video, and the con artists they coerce into setting the thing up are looking to stay out of prison. Everyone is working at cross purposes and the result is a funny and fast-paced film that is one of the best of the year.
Christian Bale, nearly unrecognizably with a pot belly, a beard, and the world’s worst comb over, stars as Irving Rosenfeld. He operates several dry cleaning businesses, but his real game is getting suckers to pay him to set up loans that never come through. The fees, of course, are non-refundable. He’s also a devoted father but has grown tired of his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), so he has taken up with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who dons a British accent and revealing clothes to partner in his scam.
They’re caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who hatches a scheme where they will help him catch much bigger fish, over the objections of his boss (Louis C.K.). Their target is Camden, NJ Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is desperate to build hotels and casinos to bring his city back to life (Massachusetts’ own Worcester substitutes nicely for Brooklyn and New Jersey.) Polito is one of the more interesting characters because he’s hustling, but not for himself. He really wants to do right by his city and is willing to do what it takes.
The film follows the increasingly convoluted scam, which includes a “sheik” of Hispanic background, Florida mobsters just itching to get into Atlantic City, and Irving’s wife, who doesn’t like being locked out of his personal or business life and plans to do something about it. After the disappointing (and greatly overrated) “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell is back in the style of “Three Kings” and “The Fighter.” He deftly juggles an array of colorful characters without turning them into cartoons.
Lawrence, for example, is so good as the brassy woman scorned it’s hard to believe this is the same actress from “Winter’s Bone” and “The Hunger Games.” Bale and Renner, often playing stoic action figures, get to cut loose here with great flair. Adams, who was in Russell’s “The Fighter,” is smooth and sexy while Cooper manages to pull off a character who can be annoying without becoming an annoying screen presence himself. His scenes arguing with Louis C.K. are priceless, and it’s not just due to the latter’s comic timing.
This is a terrifically entertaining film and a very cynical one. In the world of “American Hustle” you have to always be on the lookout for yourself. If you’re not, you just may get hustled yourself.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.