There are times when a movie begins, whether it's from the look, the music, or atmosphere, you know you're in for something that's going to transport you to another time and place. That's the feeling I got when American Hustle started.
We're told, "Some of this actually happened," which felt like a subtle dig at movies that claim to be based on true events, but you can tell are wildly exaggerated or embellished for dramatic purposes. That's certainly true here, but that craziness is part of the fun. American Hustle is a fictionalized account of the FBI's Abscam operation during the late 70's. I don't want to get into the plot as the trailers do a good job of not revealing much, so I'll just give you the broad strokes. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time con man. He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), they become lovers and start conning together. They are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who wants to use them to reel in some bigger fish and make a name for himself at the Bureau. Richie has Irv over a barrel, so he doesn't have any choice but to go along. Their primary mark is local mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who's trying to raise money to renovate Atlantic City now that gambling's been made legal.
American Hustle is as much about the characters as it is the story we're being told. Everyone's looking to improve their station in life, and most are working an angle as well. It would seem that everyone's motivations are fairly selfish in nature, but as the story unfolds, some start having conflicted or mixed feelings about what they are doing. Relationships become strained and people lose control. In particular, Irv struggles internally while he develops a friendship with Carmine, as he's a family man that seems to have honest intentions of improving his community.
I've heard many people refer to American Hustle as a comedy. I wouldn't call it an outright comedy, but more like a crime drama that just happens to be extremely funny. I love when something makes me laugh consistently when that didn't appear to be the goal. Much of the humor is from watching how people react to the situation they're in. Sometimes it's a simple look, other times it's an awkward comment from someone that doesn't realize the gravity of the situation. A few times it's due to someone completely losing their shit.
The dialog is great as well, with more than a few quotable lines. David O. Russell and Eric Singer really outdid themselves on the screenplay. There's some hilarious stuff here and it felt very natural, like being a fly on the wall
I know I'm not the first to say this, but David O. Russell did his best Scorsese impression making American Hustle. This would fit right in with a marathon of Goodfellas or Casino. It's basically the same setting and feel, same type of narration, and even some mob involvement. Hustle seemed to be full of impressions, many probably unintentional. If you close your eyes when listening to Alessandro Nivola (who played one of Richie's bosses) speak, you may hear a young Christopher Walken. At one point, the way Bradley Cooper was looking at someone and reacting to them, it reminded me of Sean Penn.
I enjoyed American Hustle the most for its dynamic performances. Cooper is great and I think he's really found a home in these more demanding dramatic roles. Jeremy Renner is also very good and plays one of the more sympathetic characters in the film. Jennifer Lawrence's gives her funniest performance to date, but I was surprised at her character's vulnerability. She continues to impress me with her maturity playing characters that seem much older than her actual age. I wouldn't guess she was only 23. There's another small role played by a very well known comedian, but I won't say who because you don't see him in the trailer. All I'll say is that I found him extremely funny, but that might be due simply to me being a fan. There's also a nice cameo that fits perfectly. Who? I'm not telling on that one either.
As good as the cast is, they're overshadowed a bit by the leads as there's more focus on the relationship between Irv and Sydney. The ageless wonder, Amy Adams, is fantastic as a sexy manipulator. Always playing both sides, she's someone that can get anything she wants. It also doesn't hurt that she has probably the best wardrobe I've seen in a film this year. I don't know too many guys that would be able to say no to her in some of those outfits. However, if there's anything I would critique about her performance it's that her accent didn't seem to be consistent. Her character crafts a persona that speaks with an English accent, and it sounded like it would transition in and out of her natural voice during conversation. I think this was due to it being a lighter English accent, but it could have been the speakers in the theater for all I know. My hearing has taken a beating over the years. Lastly, Christian Bale delivers yet another great performance, possibly my favorite since American Psycho. The sacrifices he makes to his body for these movies make me a little concerned for his long term health, but I admire the dedication. When you see him work that epic comb-over (move over Donald Trump), I expect to read somewhere that was his real hair.
On a side note, I can't tell you how many times writing this review I had to correct writing American Psycho instead of American Hustle. If Christian Bale comes out with another film with "American" in the title, I'm gonna be screwed.
Much funnier than I could have imagined and carried by great performances and direction, American Hustle reminds me why I love movies so much. Stylish, with a great soundtrack and extremely lively, it's a film I enjoyed on multiple levels and have no issue with calling one of the best of 2013.
5 (out of 5) Death Stars