David O. Russell is a filmmaker who until fairly recently seemed destined to become a footnote of cinematic history. After early success with films such as Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings, Russell became known more for his temperamental behavior than his films. He famously alienated the normally affable George Clooney and berated Lily Tomlin in an expletive-laden tirade during the filming of I Heart Huckabees; after that film he didn’t direct a feature for six years. With the release of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle, Russell solidifies himself as an auteur on par with any director working today.
Based loosely on the Abscam case of the 1970’s, American Hustle stars Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a small time conman who specializes in art forgeries and loan sharking. His partner in crime and romance is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who affects an English accent to add legitimacy to his scams. They two carve out a nice living until busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who forces the duo to help set up a local New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) in exchange for immunity. What starts as a small-time con escalates until the sting involves several Congressmen and the mob. Further complicating matters is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whose unpredictable behavior threatens to destroy the entire operation.
Comparisons to Martin Scorsese are unavoidable when watching American Hustle; Russell employs some of the same tools that Scorsese uses to great effect, from multiple voice over narration to the use of period music to dynamic cinematography. Russell is not simply aping another director, he is simply drawing from the same well. There are certainly nods to the master, particularly an uncredited cameo by an actor whose entire career is entwined with that of Scorsese. (You can probably guess who.)
On a technical level the film is brilliant, but what really makes the movie shine is the group of actors Russell assembled. Over the last few films the director has created his own little Mercury Theatre, using the same troupe of actors to wildly different but equally successful effect over three movies. Christian Bale once again proves what a chameleon he is, this time gaining weight and sporting an absolutely ridiculous comb over. Amy Adams’ portrayal of Sydney is as layered as any of her career, as she hints at deep wells of sorrow under the surface. Jennifer Lawrence, for the first time, creates an absolutely loathsome character. It’s a tribute to her skill as an actress that she makes Rosalyn completely unlikeable yet still strangely sympathetic.
The film perfectly captures the excess and gaudiness of the 70’s, both in style and attitude. The movie is being unfairly marketed as a comedy. It certainly has some funny moments, but it is really a drama about some pretty seedy characters doing whatever they can to crawl out of the muck. It is ironic, but not surprising, that the most corrupt and amoral character is supposed to be the good guy.