It's hard to believe that writer/director David O. Russell's first feature film was an incest comedy called Spanking the Monkey. Now, with his track record of critically-acclaimed dramedies, he has his pick of Hollywood's A-list talent, some of whom reached that level because of him. So it's no surprise that when Russell decided to make an ensemble dramedy about scam artists and an FBI sting operation loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, Russell went to his deep roster of actors from his recent hit movies who he shared a shorthand with and was confident could do the job. The result is American Hustle, which might end up stealing the Oscar for Best Picture the way Argo did earlier this year. Watch my ReThink Review of American Hustle below (transcript following).
No one can say writer/director David O. Russell doesn't know a good thing when he sees it. After his last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, earned multiple awards (including three Oscars) and a boatload of nominations, Russell has reassembled much of the cast from both movies for American Hustle, a comedy crime caper loosely based on the FBI's Abscam scandal, giving ample opportunities for talented actors to chew scenery in easy-to-ridicule 70s hairstyles and outfits. But with a director as smart as Russell, and with a title like American Hustle, you might be wondering if this film has a deeper meaning to it, which I suppose it does if you consider greed, ambition, and screwing people over to be distinctly American.
Christian Bale, sporting a struggling comb-over and 40 extra belly pounds, plays Irving Rosenfeld, the owner of several laundromats who supplements his business with some extra work ripping people off with art forgeries and fake loans. Irving thinks he's found his soulmate and partner in crime when he meets and teams up with Sydney Prosser, a gifted novice grifter (played by Amy Adams) who deserves some sort of award for keeping her breasts covered in a non-stop parade of outfits with naval-bearing necklines.
With a combination of a fake British persona created by Sydney and Irving's years as a conman, the two up their loan scam game and seem destined for a happy, albeit criminal future together until reality intrudes in the form of an ambitious FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper) and Irving's wife Roslyn, an attractive but unreasonable single mom (played by Jennifer Lawrence) whose son Irving has genuine love for. Using the threat of jail time, DiMaso forces Irving and Sydney to help him run an even bigger loan con involving the good-hearted mayor Carmen Polito of Camden, New Jersey (played by a pompadoured Jeremy Renner) that quickly draws in congressmen and eventually the mob (embodied by an uncredited Robert De Niro). But as the danger increases, Roslyn seems like the loose cannon who could bring the whole thing down. Louis CK also appears in a fun small role as DiMaso's beleaguered supervisor.
Despite the fact that I never fully bought Bale as a shlumpy Jew and Lawrence, as she was in Silver Linings Playbook, seems too young for her role, American Hustle is the powerhouse acting ensemble you'd expect from Russell and a cast like this, where all of the characters are smart, but not smart enough to avoid getting in over their heads. Adams is particularly good (and not just for those outfits) with a performance that may finally win her an Oscar after four nominations as Sydney attempts to work both sides while trying to remember which side she's really on. Cooper is also great as a guy whose arrogance and ambition start to overwhelm his ability to control the increasing stakes of the operation.
But is there something about this hustle that's distinctly American? Honore de Balzac said "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime", and America has created the conditions for a disproportionate number of both, where the acquisition of wealth and power usually trump the ethics of how they're acquired. The main characters in American Hustle fall into this mold, willing to swindle or trample anyone if it helps them achieve their dreams faster. No one seems to give this a second thought until Sydney is forced into scamming for the benefit of someone other than himself, where the biggest victim may be someone willing to take risks and break the law not to enrich himself, but to help others. And while America has long been known for its relentless charge onwards and upwards, it seems that more and more of us are becoming aware of the collateral damage left in the wake.
American Hustle might end up in the desirable slot where Argo stood last year, outmaneuvering films with weightier subjects using humor, fun, and a tricky, exciting, skin-of-their-teeth scheme so crazy it's got to be based on true events. And with a cast full of likable actors and an outsider director turned respected insider, don't be surprised if American Hustle, while not my favorite movie of the year, heists a lot of gold at the 2014 Oscars.