Director David O. Russell has, in previous films, shown a talent for capturing scenes of interpersonal chaos; he clearly finds people endlessly fascinating and knows how to capture explosions of a kind more commonly experienced than those you'd see in a typical war or violent crime movie.
It is, to my mind, a problematic gift; the opportunity to watch someone display mad acting skills may not feel like enough reason to subject audiences to family dysfunction or mental illness, especially for those of us whose families already give us access to more than we can tolerate for free. Russell's films are always watchable, but his last two derailed a bit; "The Fighter" set up a very perceptive story about persistent and destructive family dynamics and then solved them too easily, and "Silver Linings Playbook" exploited its insights about mental illness by devolving into a romantic story that suggested that crazy can be downright cute.
Finally, though, Russell has found exactly the right balance. "American Hustle" is a positively rollicking blend of comedy, outrageous characters and fashions, an entertaining sort-of-true crime story, and some very astute observations about what motivates human behavior and about American society. It's destined for my list of the best films of 2013.
The story is built out of the elements of "Abscam," a famously outlandish FBI sting operation from the 1970s, in which a small-time con man helped the feds take down a cadre of corrupt politicians with an elaborate scheme involving a fake Arab sheik.
"Some of this actually happened," the film asserts early on -- but Russell and his co-writer are not aiming for a strictly historical account. For them, the guts of that story serve as a vehicle for exploring the idea of the con as a ubiquitous aspect of American society. In this story, everyone is scamming everyone else, including themselves.
No one understands this better than Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, packing an additional 50 pounds for the role). As portrayed here, Irving is a successful con man because he has made a study of dissembling and can see it happening all around him. He works every angle with the care and confidence of a professional, and he understands the importance of noticing what people want to believe, and of keeping his operation small.
Irving has achieved modest success with this method, assisted by his girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). She's his soulmate, a former stripper who appreciates Irving's genius and adds her own astute spin. The two sell stolen and forged art and nonexistent loans to desperate folks, with Sydney posing as Edith Greensley, an Englishwoman with banking connections and distractingly low necklines.
But when the two are busted by an ambitious loose cannon, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), he forces them into a more elaborate scheme to snag prominent targets like the mayor of Camden and several congressmen. The scheme depends on Irving's expertise, but violates all of his methods for setting up a good con.
The film opens with Irving assembling his elaborate comb-over, a hilarious and symbolic demonstration of the care involved in Irving's method. Indeed, hair and clothes are especially vivid throughout the film, a bonus that comes with the story's setting in the garish, hair-obsessed 1970s. Sydney's long, flowing ginger hair is part of a distractingly luscious persona that dazzles people into parting with their cash. DiMaso, overestimating his smarts as much as his charm, wears his in home-permed curls as tightly-wound as his persona. And Irving's loose-cannon wife, Roslyn (Jennifer Lawrence), works her chaotic sex appeal with a blond bouffant as unruly as she is.
These are just a few of the characters who make up the conflagration that Irving must contain. Bradley Cooper applies just the right amount of manic energy to DiMaso, who keeps pushing the deal bigger and bigger, driven by ambition and greed.
Jennifer Lawrence very nearly steals the film as Roslyn; as Irving recognizes, she is a master manipulator and he is her "mark." She has a habit of setting things on fire (both literally and figuratively) and then deflecting blame on a dime so that she is actually the hero.
Amy Adams manages, in dresses cut down to her navel, to convey a woman of subtlety; she is working all her assets to rise above her circumstances and never stops strategizing, even when the social roles available to her don't allow her many options. A confrontation in the ladies' room between the two women is worth the price of admission all on its own.
And there is lots of other great work here, including from Jeremy Renner as the Camden mayor, Alessandro Nivola as a prosecutor supposedly modeled on Rudy Giuliani, Robert DeNiro as (what else?) a menacing mobster, and Louis C-K as DiMaso's long-suffering boss.
But Bale's performance is the heart of the film. His Irving is a marvel of complexity; his expressions convey that he is always strategizing, calculating odds, and occasionally despairing of keeping in the air all the balls that DiMaso has tossed there and Roslyn has diverted.
Although always working an angle, Irving struggles with the implications of his actions; he worries about Roslyn's son and about his failures of loyalty to Sydney and the mayor, to whom he has grown attached. Director Russell has made him the moral center of the film, which is itself a bit of flim-flam that suits the material. His morality is only satisfying if you don't think about it too hard -- which somehow makes the film very satisfying.