Like many great crime pictures, American Hustle has no moral compass, no sense of good guys or bad guys. Standing in the rubble of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, American Hustle’s disillusioned crew sees the American Dream as something no longer realized through optimism and elbow grease; it has to be taken and by any means necessary. Based loosely on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation of the late 70s/early 80’s, American Hustle combines one part Goodfellas with one part The Sting (though it’s not quite at the level of either) to tell an engaging tale of schemers, con artists, and the craziness they endure in the pursuit of being somebody.
Opening with the humorous and unapologetic preface, “Some of this actually happened,” American Hustle follows con artist Irving (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams), partners in selling scam loans and forged artwork. Apprehended by Federal agent Richie (Bradley Cooper), the two agree to aid the government in making other arrests in exchange for their freedom. As the operation deepens, Richie’s personal ambition proves dangerous, and Irving’s unbalanced wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to undo everything.
The opening shot lingers on Irving as he meticulously glues his unimpressive hair piece. There’s an unmistakable futility about it but an even stronger sense of vanity, setting the stage for everything to follow. Here are characters devoid of real happiness and detached from reality. Their focus remains ever inward, and they view those around them (even their would-be friends) as opportunities in the game of getting ahead. Director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) excels at portraying craziness from an inside perspective, tinged with just enough humor to keep things buoyant.
American Hustle boasts a slew of strong performances, but it’s Christian Bale who holds it all together. His Irving repeatedly ties his own noose, yet we root for him to slip out of it again and again. He deserves to answer for his actions, but we hope he doesn’t have to, largely due to likability imbued by Bale. He and Amy Adams have great chemistry, and their characters’ internal narration early in the film is one of many bits that evokes Goodfellas. Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner round out the ensemble with varying brands of selfishness and instability, and Louis C.K. takes a fun turn as the only responsible person in the room.
Costumes look more like 70s theme-party pieces than authentic period attire, enhancing the overall sense of decadence and detachment from reality. These characters aren’t interested in blending in; their only options are “go big” or “go home.” The artistic choice to exaggerate everything made for a more enjoyable picture than if the material had been presented straight. Filmmakers played loosely with clothes, hair, dialogue and plot details, putting entertainment above accuracy. What began as a true story became “some of this actually happened,” and the movie’s better for it.
With a good deal of humor thrown in the mix, American Hustle effectively portrays criminal life in all its complexity. Highs dip to lows in a flash, and the elusive American Dream remains forever around the next corner. Momentum slows two-thirds through where a little editing would have gone a long way, but the narrative rallies at the finish line with a fun twist, leaving us to reflect on the sheer insanity of it all.
For the Parents:
MPAA: Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Apart from pervasive profanity, overall tone and emotional instability make American Hustle a film for adults. Also, while there isn’t any nudity per se, Amy Adams breasts consistently remain partially exposed.