Movie Review: American Hustle
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
“American Hustle” opens with con man Irving Rosenfeld standing in front of a mirror and going through an elaborate effort to hide his bald spot. His shirt is open to the waist, revealing a flabby belly. And he has a hairpiece that he glues to the top of his head before working on a comb-over that he thinks makes him presentable.
It’s a fitting scene for a movie about people pretending to be something they’re not. But it’s startling to realize that the chunky man standing in front of the mirror is the usually trim Christian Bale, who put on 50 pounds for the role. And it’s even more unsettling as you begin to understand that this sleazy guy is going to be your hero.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of writer/director David O. Russell, where deeply flawed characters reign supreme. It’s the late 1970s, and the FBI is trying to con some cons into conning some politicians. For those who were around back then, much of what happens in “American Hustle” actually happened. The FBI set up a sting operation to catch New Jersey politicians taking money from an Arab sheik who wanted to finance a casino along the Jersey shore, and the operation was called Abscam.
So what’s Rosenfeld’s role in this sting? It turns out that Rosenfeld has been working with the former stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and their money-making schemes attract the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso, who’s trying to make a name for himself at the agency, decides that he’ll set up the two con artists by posing as a desperate businessman who needs a loan. And when he catches them acting illegally, he blackmails them into helping catch even bigger fish — Jersey politicians.
It’s an elaborate ruse. But you can’t help rooting for Rosenfeld and Prosser, the latter of whom wears provocative clothes while trying to claw her way to a comfortable life. As played by Adams, Prosser actually seems to have a bit of love for Rosenfeld. But she has a big problem. Rosenfeld is married to a wild, self-centered and delusional troublemaker, Rosalyn, and Jennifer Lawrence plays her with a hilarious vengeance. When Lawrence and Adams finally meet, much later in the film, fireworks erupt, and “American Hustle” rivals the campy fun of watching Joan Collins and Linda Evans squaring off on television’s “Dynasty.”
All of the actors are excellent, and many of them have worked with the director before. (Cooper and Lawrence, of course, were in last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”)
As the FBI agent, Cooper has some of the best scenes. He’s as desperate as anyone else. He lives at home with his mother, and he spends a lot of time worrying about his hair, too. He considers it to be too straight, so he walks around the apartment wearing curlers. His scenes with his sad-sack, reluctant FBI boss, played by Louis C.K., are little gems, as well.
It’s rather clear, early on, however, that Cooper’s DiMaso is wandering into dangerous territory. And it’s also clear that one of the Abscam’s first targets, a Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), doesn’t deserve to be entrapped. Renner plays Polito as an all-around good guy who’s just trying to bring jobs to his town by helping build a casino. And Bale’s Rosenfeld realizes that he has been blackmailed into a overall nasty affair that’s bound to hurt plenty of folks who really aren’t all that bad.
As a director, Russell can be a little manic at times. The dialogue is snappy, and the story is convoluted. But he’s drawing on a long Hollywood tradition of caper tales, including “The Lady Eve” and “The Sting.” And most importantly, he has assembled a terrific cast, all of whom attack their roles with gusto.
In recent days, there has been a critical backlash against “American Hustle,” possibly because it was named best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle and received seven Golden Globe nominations. It seems like a shoo-in for several Oscar nominations, as well. And some critics love to tear down a crowd-pleasing contender. Don’t let them sway you. “American Hustle” is a good-time holiday movie.