“American Hustle” (2013) is a drama film very loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, headed by the F.B.I. in the late 1970’s. Medium level con-man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), and his partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), get caught by headstrong F.B.I. Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), and forced to cooperate with the F.B.I. in order to avoid prison. Sydney wants to run, but Irving feels compelled to stay because of his young, overly dramatic (and emotionally unstable) wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and their son.
Irving and Sydney help DiMaso to set up other con-men, in order to square things with the F.B.I., but when someone mentions that New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) might be interested in dealing with a fake sheik that Irving has invented for his scams, things get out of hand. Irving sees the conning of political figures (especially good-natured ones, as Polito has been portrayed) as a risk, but DiMaso, in his pursuit of fame and perpetual achievements, insists on pushing the envelope at all times- even when the mob gets involved.
There is no doubt about it, “American Hustle” is one of the most proficiently made films not only of 2013, but of the last decade. David O. Russell has quickly become one of the most masterfully skilled filmmakers of his day. His direction is flawless, and the style of his craft has been guided by the generations of great directors who came before, paving the way. Russell has proven that he is able to adapt, in order to take on any kind of film and make it entertaining and enjoyable, without lacking any of that sought after “quality”, thus keeping him at the top of the short stack of elite directors working today.
The other thing that Russell (along with his skillful team) has accomplished is the transportation of an audience into another world, time, and place. The screenplay (written by both Russell and Eric Warren Singer) has expertly captured the era with not only the words, but also the characters’ speech patterns and even their thoughts. (The voice-over that is prominent in the early stages of this film are wonderful, and I was quite disappointed as they dissipated with the story’s progression.) The costumes are so good- so flashy- so attention grabbing that I expect many of these styles to come back. (Although I hope not.) The cinematography (Linus Sandgren) gives the film a 1970’s embodiment that almost feels as though the great cinematographer Michael Chapman could have filmed “American Hustle” as a documentary in the late 70’s, sometime between “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The Last Waltz”. In fact, “American Hustle” feels like a throw-back film to all those gritty, unglamorous opus movies that Martin Scorsese was making 25, 30, or 35 years ago. You almost half expect Robert De Niro to pop out and whack somebody in the middle of the street! Oh, wait.
Of course the real highlight here is the acting, which from top to bottom is at its very best. Christian Bale is (as expected) superb in a grotesque, but oddly appealing way. Bradley Cooper is also excellent, as we have recently come to expect. Cooper should stick by David O. Russell as he obviously knows how to write parts that will fit his personality so perfectly. Jeremy Renner gets somewhat lost in the shuffle, but not because of any fault on his part. The film is just too packed to allow his character to be noticeable or powerful.
Somehow, even with all three of our leading men doing some of the best work of their careers, it’s the women who steal the show. We know Amy Adams is going to be perfect every time she waltzes onto the screen (which she is), but by constantly challenging herself with roles that push her acting comfort zone, she is only going to continue to get better and obtain more Academy Award nominations. (Five by the age of 39 isn’t too shabby, either.) As if it even needed to be said, Jennifer Lawrence is a scene stealer. I’ve heard some talk that perhaps she’s too young for this role, and there might be something to that general idea, but she is so captivating that you can’t help but be enthralled by her. She is the supporting character in the film, but she is also the one that you remember most when you walk away. (Incidentally, three Academy Award nominations by the age of 23 is pretty impressive in and of itself.)
With all my praise for “American Hustle” and its achievements, both on a technical level and a professional one, I must admit that I found this film to be lacking in that one hard to describe, intangible area. Some movies have that special something that makes them endearing or exciting, such as last year’s David O. Russell hit “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012). For me, “American Hustle” lacks this magical and sought after aspect. Entertaining? Yes, but not in a way that will stay with us over the long run, despite its virtually flawless design. It is a film that because of so much hard work and dedication will be applauded and recognized in its time, but as the years pass, will be studied more than enjoyed.