David O. Russell made waves with last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. Not only did it garner an Oscar win for Jennifer Lawrence, but it was also a surprisingly touching film from the director. Normally known for a more hectic style steeped in wry humor — and in the case of I Heart Huckabees, drenched in philosophical overtones — American Hustle is unmistakably Russell. From the quick pace, to the overlapping dialogue between its long list of characters, much of it brings to mind his 1996 dysfunctional family comedy Flirting With Disaster. Of course, the story of a man looking for his birth parents couldn’t be further from a film about the FBI using a con man to bust government officials, but both films contain a chaotic style that serves to recreate the anxiety the characters begin to feel as everything flies out of their control.
Russell also welcomes back a cast, mainly comprised of actors from his previous effort and The Fighter, with Christian Bale leading the crew as sleazy New York hustler Irving Rosenfeld. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) becomes his mistress and soon business partner, using her fake English accent and overt sexuality to fool their hits into believing she’s British royalty able to secure them large loans. For a non-refundable fee to Rosenfeld, of course. Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is a much younger trophy wife battling borderline mental disorders, but whose son he raises as his own. Rosenfeld and Prosser are caught by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who makes a deal with them: he’ll let them off if they help him bust some more important people. However, as they get deeper into the game, the overly ambitious DiMaso continues to enlarge the playing field, not only to the chagrin of Rosenfeld and Prosser, but also of his mild mannered superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.). Unfortunately for Thorsen, his superiors couldn’t be happier about DiMaso’s results.
It’s the kind of film that interweaves the characters through a succession of encounters that continuously ratchets up the tension and breaking point of everyone — one memorable scene finds Rosalyn furiously cleaning her house while rocking out to Paul McCartney’s “Live or Let Die” — as Russell also moves the camera in a furious manner, complete with sharp close-ups, set to late ‘70’s rock music. Based on the real FBI ABSCAM operation, although slightly fictionalized, at it’s heart it’s about nature of good vs. evil, and how it’s not a black and white world but rather a grey one. But really, it’s about survival and the desire to make something of oneself and live a comfortable life. Rosenfeld lives a life of sin, so to speak, while DiMaso is a government agent. He’s one of the good guys. Yet, as they become more entangled with one another, each their relationship becomes more muddled and the boundaries between life and fiction are blurred. As before, Prosser attempts to use her sexuality to keep DiMaso on a short leash, believing he’s in charge, but soon it’s unclear what’s real and what isn’t between them.
With neverending twists and turns — including a great cameo from Robert De Niro as a mobster who threatens to derail their entire operation — it’s a dizzying cinematic experience. But it’s also somehow a satisfying one. Unlike Silver Linings Playbook which sought to tame the souls of it’s two erratic souls, American Hustle preys on the lies it’s characters continue to pile up, unable to escape the house of cards they’ve built. The audience can feel the wind coming to knock it down, and although it’s inevitable, the film’s denouement is no less exciting. A head trip, to be sure, American Hustle is also another bitter success from David O. Russell.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5