Movie Review: American Hustle

By Stephen Rebello

<p>Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and more star in one of the best films of 2013.<br></p>

Director: David O. Russell

Rating: R

Studio: Annapurna Pictures

Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner

With American Hustle, this year’s flip, edgy comic knockout from Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell, the go-for-broke director and co-screenwriter Eric Singer sink us neck deep into a spectacularly skewed spin on the late 1970s, early 1980s sting operation known as ABSCAM, a screwy setup involving FBI agents recruiting con jobbers to entrap public servants on the take.

The federal corruption probe ensnared seven congressmen, a U.S. senator, three Philadelphia councilmen, a New Jersey state legislator and more. It also involved bogus Arab sheikhs, stolen paintings and huge cash payoffs for Atlantic City casino permits. Insane stuff, really. But unlike, say, Argo, which played it relatively straight despite tons of falsehoods, American Hustle plays things for laughs, right from its jaunty, tone-setting title that informs us “Some of this actually happened.” All the better for Russell to unleash his formidable cast of fast-on-their-feet actors, including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner, in a roundelay of manipulations, deceptions, betrayals, schemes and emotional misfires, all wrapped up in bling, plunging necklines, polyester, Aqua Net and disco balls. It’s almost irrelevant to dissect details of the plot. But, for the record, the movie is about how a hot-wired Jheri-curled a-hole of an FBI guy (Cooper) ropes paunchy dry cleaning shop owner Bale (brilliant and almost unrecognizable) and his fiercely ambitious fellow bottom-feeding con artist (Adams, a drop-dead revelation here) into entrapping a well-meaning New Jersey mayor who sports an Elvis impersonator–worthy pompadour (Renner). They see Renner (who’s never been better) as the linchpin to teasing out other politicians on the take from the mob. The wild card they forget to factor into the equation is Bale’s sharp but volatile and vengeful wife (an astounding, scene-stealing comic turn by Lawrence). Using to brilliant effect tunes like Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues,“ The Bee Gees’ "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Russell plays the movie at manic, full frenzy mode, a little like something explosive and startlingly alive by Preston Sturges, only on speed. With all of its characters clawing for survival, and maybe more than a little on the side, the too-long movie is as exhilarating as it is exhausting.

But when American Hustle lands, it’s bravura stuff on the level of old-time Scorsese. It’s a movie of astounding virtuosity, playfulness and know-how, made for audiences as drunk on movies as Russell is. He’s made one of the great films in a banner year for American moviemaking. Let’s hope he’s already at work on his next.


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