David O’Russell’s American Hustle remembers the last great golden era of filmmaking, when movies centered on complex character-driven stories that were expertly told, before profits came before art and the entire industry defined itself by which blockbusters could fill the most theater seats. Writers and directors had the final say on what ultimately made it to the screen, and producers were there just to make sure the finances didn’t get too out of hand.
These are pretty much universally acknowledged truths about the 1970s, and so it seems fitting that American Hustle — which gets not just the look of the disco era right, but the attitude — would not be so out of place next to great American films like Network, Dog Day Afternoon and Chinatown. It’s a great and sprawling epic that starts with a single expert con man, and then winds and weaves its way through a twisting series of bribes, deceptions, corrupt politicians, the mafia and sudden violence before blindsiding us with a stunner of an ending. It also happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year. All too often we hear the refrain that they don’t make movies like they used to. Well, here’s a dazzling, bold, and electrifying masterpiece to prove us all wrong.
To attempt to explain the movie’s labyrinthine plot is an exercise in futility: there is simply no way to do it justice without giving too much away, and even a single spoiler would be a crime against humanity. The story is loosely based on the Abscam scandal from the late-1970s, that saw the FBI chasing down East Coast politicians guilty of taking bribes. Christian Bale, who is fast becoming one of the world’s greatest actors, figures in another of his remarkable physical transformations, as Irving Rosenfeld, a smalltime crook who gets into something bigger than he can handle, and then struggles to keep it from spiraling out of control. From the moment we see him in the first frame taming his impossibly long combover, his paunch hanging over his belly as if it were trying to escape his belt, we know we’re in for something special. He’s all crass and incivility, with a Brooklyn accent as thick as cigarette smoke. Early in the film, Irving finds his match in deceit in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, playing against type), a small-town stripper who tricks people into thinking she’s British royalty, and soon becomes Irving’s lover and partner in crime.
Eventually, Irving and Sydney will find themselves caught up in the scheme of overzealous FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who’s looking to make his mark by taking down corrupt high-profile politicians. One of DiMaso’s targets is Camden, New Jersey, Mayor Carmine Polito who wants to revitalize Atlantic City gambling and believes taking a bribe is the only way to do it. The plot to frame Polito involves a Mexican posing as a wealthy Arab Sheik, $2 million dollars in a fake bank account, and mafia boss, Victor Tellegio (a terrific Robert De Niro), who has a very personal interest in the operation. By the end, most of the players involved in the con will have their perception of what’s happening turned upside-down — and so will we.
What an extraordinary movie this is. The screenplay is a masterpiece of construction. Its intricacies and devilish cleverness, the way it almost seems to spin away in a dervish before regaining control, left me giddy in a way I haven’t felt since The Usual Suspects. When the movie is over, we feel the urge to go back through what has happened to see if we can punch holes in the logic, but all of it is air tight. Bale and Cooper are excellent in their respective roles, and Jennifer Lawrence has a lot of fun as Bale’s crude and crass Brooklyn wife who can’t seem to keep her mouth shut. But Adams is the true revelation here, looking and feeling a little sexier and more confident than she’s ever been on film. Her Sydney is perhaps a self-loathing creature who has created an intricate persona to escape her miserable life; but she turns up the fire to seduce all the men in the plot who need seducing for things to succeed, with her carousel of risqué outfits slit up to here and cut down to there. It’s an award-worthy performance that finally shows Adams as a force of nature, and I hope she continues to seek out roles that challenge her rather formidable range.