DAVID O Russell is an American director whose films are notable for their fully-formed characters, compelling dialogue and free-flowing narratives. American Hustle, populated by familiar faces from his last two movies, is no exception.
Russell's latest is a frantic, funny, quirkily intense and well-observed study of a bottom-feeding confidence man who takes on a bit more than he can handle.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) has a tragi- comic air about him, thanks in part to an elaborately messy and absolutely appalling comb- over that dominates his appearance. The lack of taste extends to his choice in clothes but when it comes to the art of the con, Irving is all hustle.
He owns a chain of dry-cleaning stores and has a shady art-dealing business on the side but mainly, Irving makes a tidy living from an age-old scam: securing non-existent loans for people in urgent need of funds, in exchange for an up-front fee.
His fortunes (not to mention his sex life) improve when he recruits Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a smart, sassy, cleavage-showing survivor in search of a better tomorrow. She's a soul mate who serves as a counterpoint to Irving's dangerously unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose cannon with an alarming propensity to blab to the wrong people.
Bale and Adams had pivotal roles in The Fighter (2010), Russell's true-life tale of a boxer who succeeded against near-impossible odds. American Hustle is also loosely based on real people and an actual incident - the so-called Abscam scandal of 1978 in which corrupt US politicians were ensnared in an FBI investigation involving make-believe Arab sheikhs and a plan to legalise casinos in Atlantic City.
Irving and Sydney cross paths with Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious, vaguely unscrupulous Fed agent who nabs the pair on embezzlement charges, then coerces them to front for a bigger operation designed to entrap Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a local politician seeking investors for his casino scheme.
Richie is played by Cooper as more con than cop, seduced by the game and using millions of dollars in FBI funds to lure his unsuspecting target. He's a giddy novice who makes fun of his superior's (Louis C K) straight-arrow approach but his over-eagerness to impress ultimately complicates matters and the scam threatens to spiral out of control, especially when mobsters show up in search of a slice of the action.
Written as equal parts drama and black comedy by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, the film moves smoothly into overdrive and teeters precariously on the edge of disaster before being expertly reeled in by Bale and Adams, whose finely-tuned performances augur well for the upcoming awards season. Cooper and Lawrence, recent alumni from Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2012), are no slouches either.
American Hustle is bold, brassy and thoroughly entertaining, an adrenalin-driven tale of unconventional and complex characters who spring to life in Russell's unique vision.
Above all, it's a love story about people who do what needs to be done to survive. In the proper hands, a sting can be a beautiful thing to behold. Like Irving's comb-over, this one isn't pretty, but it gets its moves just about right.