Big hair, corduroy, bell bottoms, braless women, and those classic eight-track hits of the seventies come roaring back to life in David O. Russell's flashy homage to that bygone era, American Hustle. Loosely based on the FBI's infamous Abscam busts, American Hustle is a very well acted tale of con artists and their volatile relationships. Russell stacks the deck with an all star cast from his previous excellent films, The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook.
Christian Bale, in a truly memorable role, stars as the overweight and balding, Irving Rosenfeld. A small time business man turned con man, Rosenfeld falls in love with a beguiling schemer, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Together they loot marks desperate for quick loans until their act catches the eye of FBI Agent Richie Dimaso (Bradley Cooper). An egomaniac with a spectacular coiffed perm, Dimaso forces the pair to lure in a New Jersey politician (Jeremy Renner) by concocting a fake Arab prince who wants to invest in turning around Atlantic City for gambling. Events spiral out of control as bigger fish get caught in the net. But pale in comparison to the damage wrought by Irving's beautiful and uncontrollable young wife (Jennifer Lawrence).
American Hustle is a visual and aural feast. The film explodes off the screen with style, sex, and glamour. Amy Adams sports some of the greatest side boob and plunging v-line outfits ever seen on film. I'm sure the creator of double-sided tape will weep for joy for its use here. She's fantastic as Sydney Prosser, a woman deeply in love, but continually living a lie. Jennifer Lawrence astounds again as Rosalyn, Irving's wife and bane of his existence. These two performances really add a sweltering steaminess to the film without being just eye candy. Russell's script makes you understand why these women were so captivating and troubling.
Christian Bale deserves the lion's share of credit for making American Hustle work. It's astonishing to believe this is the same guy that played Batman. Seriously, a fit, late thirties British actor, world renown as an action star, playing a fat, balding, Jewish, Long Island hustler. Bale won an Oscar as a drug addled boxer in The Fighter, his previous film with David O. Russell. I challenge that this role is superior, and more nuanced than that award winning performance. American Hustle works because the audience empathizes with Irving. For all of his flaws, Irving cares for his family, for Sydney, but is really torn up by the lies he uses to entrap people for the feds. It's a fascinating character. Bale plays Rosenfeld with a subtle exasperation that fits beautifully into the story.
The third act of American Hustle has a few surprises, but kind of loses the magnificent tempo established in the beginning. It's difficult to start off so strong and keep that same creativity going throughout. Only the best films really accomplish that goal. American Hustle is not the best film of the year, but it comes admirably close. It's a great time at the movies and may resurrect a few trends.