American Hustle is a dizzying array of spectacularly colorful characters interacting with each other in various ways through varying combinations of cons and cons on top of cons- it may be a puzzle to keep up with, but it's a grandly entertaining time at the movies, and David O. Russell's best film to date. Russell's coming off a hot streak lately, with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook both popular hits that took traditional genres (boxing movie and romantic comedy) and gave them a new spin in the form of Russell's specialty- a kind of manic energy he infuses in his actors by directing them in an improv heavy manner where he shouts new lines from off screen as they work take after take. It's a method that gives his films a unique feel, but this one in particular feels most unique of all, because he's not so boxed in by the genre trappings of what the last two films ultimately were at their core.
The movie is based on what was an actual scandal in the 1970's, known as ABSCAM, where an FBI agent used a con artist to entrap several corrupt politicians in New Jersey, but Russell gets around the true story aspect by stating flat out at the beginning, "some of this really happened." How much is a question mark, but it doesn't really matter at all, because he takes the character of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), based on the real life con artist Mel Weinberg, and creates several fictitious ones around him in order to conduct romantic triangles, emotional entanglements, crushed friendships and hilarious interactions that are the real focus of all of his films- as he said himself to Christian Bale once, "I don't give a damn about plot- I'm all about character." I would advise you to keep that in mind while watching this, because it comes across, and the delight we feel in seeing these characters interact is really what the movie's all about, and what makes it so special.
Whatever plot there is involves Rosenfeld and his mistress/partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are coerced by FBI agent Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper) into going after the mayor of Atlantic City, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who's actually a goodhearted guy with genuine intentions, and whose shady mob ties are only employed to help the people of his city. One of the more intriguing undercurrents in the film is how Irving, Sydney and Carmine all come across as the real good guys in the story, while the crusading FBI agent feels more like a villain in the way he attempts to entrap (through some very ethically questionable procedures), the crooks and congressman he's targeting. Rosenfeld's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is the wild card in their schemes, as the unhappy yet irresponsible mother to Irving's adopted son, and she gets a lot of the loudest, most attention grabbing lines, which she plays perfectly (even if for me she was a little overhyped, as I didn't find that Lawrence necessarily stole the movie from anyone else in the cast).
All the actors are a blast, with Christian Bale and Amy Adams best in show, giving their characters depth and layers, piled under the various disguises and bogus identities they live to show off. One of the best scenes in the movie is early on, when their characters meet and fall in love while dancing in a laundromat, entranced by all the different outfits circling around them, representing their one wish to be, as Adams' Sydney puts it, "someone other than who I was." That description applies for just about every character on one level or another, whether through actual fraudulent identity, elaborate costume changes (Irving's first scene shows him putting together the world's most complicated combover) or simple personality shifts. Amy Adams does a great job at living two characters- herself and Lady Edith Greenslee, the British noblewoman she makes up as her alter ego, whom she cleverly keeps slipping in and out of.
The film is Russell's most vibrantly alive to date, with the atmosphere, costumes and setting of 1970's New Jersey hurling itself at you so fiercely that you can practically taste the hairspray in the air- all while the soundtrack kicks in with perfectly timed renditions of 70's hits as the camera swirls in circles, capturing the very essence of the manic lives these people live in the wake of other well known government corruption scandals of the decade. On first watch, you can take this film as an entertaining con movie, a kind of companion piece to the The Sting in all its twists and revelations- but upon further reflection it reveals more layers than you might at first realize, and you wonder whether the film itself was playing an elaborate con disguising greatness as goodness, the way its characters get lost in their own false identities. It's a question worth pondering, and worth asking again.
* * * 1/2