Hustle Bustle: Russell Returns With Surprising Verve
Just when you thought David O. Russell’s American Hustle might bow as an attempt at an awards friendly version of something Martin Scorsese may have helmed, think again. The sometimes explosive, sometimes notorious director, coming off two helpings of crowd pleasing entrees with 2010’s The Fighter and 2012’s The Silver Linings Playbook, has concocted his most thoroughly enjoyable film in years, a slickly paced con game that’s so frenetically enjoyable, it’ll fool you into believing it’s even more substantial than it really is.
While its characters are graced with the sort of melancholy notes that staunchly overruled miserable existences of the persons populating his last efforts, Russell strikes an overtly comedic pose here, a droll comedy of idiots, made a titch more scathing because, as we’re honestly informed in the opening credits, ‘some of this actually happened.’ In truth, Russell does seem to be retreading Scorsese territory (and an enjoyable cameo from De Niro will heartily support that) but those in search of vicious, ruthless portraits of power and control may be disappointed. Instead, especially during its beautifully modulated character developments in the first half, Russell’s film (well, at least its central-ish romance), recalls Woody Allen.
Loosely borrowing its narrative from an infamous 1970’s FBI investigation known as ABSCAM (the catchy code actually stands for Abdul Scam), in which the bureau hired an actual con-artist criminal to weasel out corrupt public officials, Russell chooses to breeze over important details about the art of the con and inside fripperies within the bureau. Enter Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a balding, lower-rung con-artist who swindles desperate people with poor credit out of their money as well as selling forged pieces of art. He meets his match made in heaven, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) while at a party where they bond over Duke Ellington. After some romance, he reveals himself to her, and she ends up posing as his British partner with inside connections at the Bank of London. As they happily fleece the desperate and needy, they’re nabbed in a sting by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who gives them a deal. If they work with the agency and bust four high profile targets, they will be released without charge. And thus begins an intricate game of conning when DiMaso decides to target New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Some minor set-backs asides, their plans seem to go smoothly until Rosenfeld’s younger, volatile wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to ruin everything.
There’s a frenetic restlessness to American Hustle, as if it’s running on too much stimulation (not cocaine, more like caffeine) for us to keep up with it, and thus forcing the camera into a multitude of odd swoops, questionable zooms, and plenty of close-ups that pan uneasily for reaction shots. It’s a visual scheme that seems as zanily distracting as the character threads the film so ravenously ponders then abandons for large chunks of time like some old chew toy (as, for instance, how its two main female characters are featured, with Adams dominating the first half while Lawrence’s comic foil commands the latter).
While Renner, Cooper, and a running joke of a character from Louis C.K. are certainly entertaining (then there’s Alessandro Nivola doing Christopher Walken shtick), it’s Bale and Adams who run the show. Physically unpleasant yet undoubtedly endearing, Bale once again transcends his own reputation and filmography, even more impressive in comparison to an equally engrossing turn in Out of the Furnace. As jittery as the cinematography tends to be, Linus Sandgren makes a breathtaking spectacle out of Adams, from a sweat soaked night club dance sequence set to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” to a marvelous shot of her haloed in the confines of a blue Cadillac, she’s not only electric, but the most arresting element of American Hustle.
For her part, Lawrence is indeed a genuine highlight, a brassy and sassy tornado of a performance that is as sorely at odds with the rest of the film as it is boldly necessary, a monkey wrench that screws up all the smug slickness of its self-satisfied con trio. She’s all pouty fluff until we see her growl angrily when confronted with Adams, and their bathroom face-off stands as one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
As the film wraps up after its generous running time, there’s a definite feeling that we’ve been entertained but aren’t left with any residual substance, yet still there’s a reluctance to want to let it go. Russell has created a host of flawed yet likeable characters, who, beyond the infamous details that sparked their fictional account, are highly entertaining and exciting. But then again, American Hustle concerns the creation of fantasies meant to trap or fool others and since reality will always come knocking, it’s not at fault for being a pleasurable ruse and concluding with a puff of light fumes slowly fading.