I’ve always had a soft spot for crime-caper movies, particularly those with densely layered plots and snappy writing. And David O. Russell’s latest film, “American Hustle,” falls perfectly into the sweet spot between mass entertainment and intellectually ambitious cinema. Russell’s last flick, “Silver Lining Playbook,” is one of my favorite romantic comedies (and movies) of all time: “American Hustle” proves that this past success was most assuredly no fluke. I think this movie was “inspired by true events” on some level, but it doesn’t really matter: the story works, factual basis notwithstanding, as both a probing character study and a smartly crafted piece of fiction.
Low-level con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, who’s clearly put on about 40 pounds in an admirable demonstration of method acting) is working with mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, in an uncharacteristically vampy role that she nails) when the FBI shows up. In return for immunity, agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) enlists Irving and Sydney in a sting operation designed to ferret out corrupt New Jersey politicians. Meanwhile, Irving’s forced to contend with unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, playing a hot mess of a character that couldn’t diverge more drastically from stoic Katniss Everdeen) who may or may not be working to undermine him.
Everything – the period music selections, the editing, the cinematography – is top-notch. Just as in last year’s “Playbook,” Russell infuses his movie with a sense of kinetic energy that brings out the very best in the talent he’s working with. And make no mistake about it, it’s the cast that truly brings “American Hustle” to life: anchored by Oscar-worthy performances from Bale, Adams, Cooper, and Lawrence, “Hustle” becomes something genuinely spellbinding (and oftentimes very funny).
Thematically, “American Hustle” touches on a number of interesting questions (the nature of the American Dream in a post-ethical era, at what point does “crime busting” cross the line into immoral entrapment? in what ways does America idolize self-actualization via whatever means necessary? etc.), but resists the urge to offer up easy bromides. Russell strikes a wonderfully rare balance between mainstream appeal and complexity of worldview; there’s a lot of depth here beneath the slick exterior.
This is not all-ages family fare (profanity is constant, and things can get pretty sexed-up, to say the least), but from a cinematic standpoint “American Hustle” is one of the very best of its kind. This is a film that will remain ferociously memorable for its characters, and for the actors who bring them to life with such zest. Despite its sprawling scale and jam-packed cast, “Hustle” deftly avoids both shallowness and bloat (a feat movies five times more expensive are unable to accomplish).
In short, it’s hands-down one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with come Oscar time. Highly recommended.
A fantastically acted, perfectly composed film that works on every level. Serious contender for movie of the year.
Normalized Score: 9.2