David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is the story of a pair of con artists forced to cooperated with the FBI, featuring a smorgasbord of original characters who drive the film’s wild portrayal of 1978 wheeling, dealing and stealing. It’s the director’s latest painting with his character-first signature all over it, having brought back his usual goon squad: Bale, Cooper, Lawrence, De Niro, even Paul Herman.
The film is all about deception, conning and convincing. Amy Adams plays Sydney Prosser, who plays Edith for most of the two-plus hours of the film, so don’t be overwhelmed by misinformation. That’s this whole thing working. It means the “American Hustle” is good.
Prosser is Irving Rosenfeld’s (Christian Bale) partner in the con game. Rosenfeld is an overweight con artist/dry cleaner with a moral streak and combover. He’s the brains of the operation, but he and Prosser work for Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a ill-tempered FBI agent with a taste for politicians’ blood. They seek to screw over Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the do-good mayor from New Jersey. Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) is the wife at home who can pull the plug on the whole shebang.
Russell and his minions have crafted what I expect is a realistic glimpse of 1970s New York. Outfits are loud. Hair is either big or permed, sometimes both. Parties are strobed. Surveillance is on cassette. Microwaves are called Science Ovens.
Speaking of science ovens: Russell and co-writer Eric Singer give us quite a few similar quotable quips during the film, hidden enough to be worth the find. This is merely something we’ve come to expect of Russell. His past two films, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter” also gave us these lines (Calm down, crazy). They feel natural within the characters dialogue.
These characters, of course, drive the action forward. “American Hustle” isn’t so much about figuring out the plot as it is wondering how these maniacs will not all die at the end, especially after mobster Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) enters the picture and seems to have everyone figured out after shaking their hands.
Lawrence still has a mystifying gravitational pull when she’s on screen, as she does in all of her films whether she’s Katniss (“Hunger Games”), Tiffany (“Silver Linings Playbook), or Rosalyn. In “American Hustle,” she’s basically a stay-at-home mom. She’s in complete control of herself, even when you don’t think she is, and knows how to let loose to have a good time and, of course, everyone loves her. But it’s the little things I like so much about this character. She likes painting her nails and moving around furniture. Also, she’s quietly smart and well-read. She has a mean streak to her, but she’s a good mom and not even Irving Rosenfeld can completely abandon her without making sure she’s okay.
As for Irving, Bale is tremendous. Go watch him work.
Adams is most surprising. The role of Sydney Prosser is out of the norm for her, but Russell wrote the part with her in mind. She can’t quite hold a candle to Lawrence’s conviction, but she tried a different role than we’re used to seeing her and manhandled it.
“American Hustle” is the case of a dynamite cast doing extraordinary things in a surreal story; in fact, some of these things actually happened.
“American Hustle”: ★★★1/2