David O. Russell’s American Hustle is an authentic and enthralling crime comedy-drama that explores the corruption, deception, lust and power that pervaded the 1970s and one of the most scandalous scams of the decade. Graced with a star-studded cast, American Hustle combines the Oscar-winning ensembles of Russell’s The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook to create an enticing collection of Hollywood’s finest depicting gaudy characters who fight to reinvent the American dream.
In the winter of 1978, small-time businessman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets former stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the two immediately fall in love over their shared interests of forging and conning. They become successful embezzlers until one of their victims turns out to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper.) Jennifer Lawrence plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving’s glamorously vain wife who unintentionally helps Irving in a sting operation that involves bribing officials who are keen on investing in Atlantic City’s fraudulently emerging casino industry.
Exploding with blundering levities, the film opens with a bearded, overweight Irving struggling with an elaborately contrived comb-over. In many scenes such as this one, the plot resonates with more laughs than gasps. Louis C.K. provides additional comic relief as a pushover police chief. The over-the-top humor serves to encapsulate the wild and garish nature of the decade, leading to situations and characters that are zanily extravagant, but entertainingly so.
What makes American Hustle unique in both the heist genre and Russell’s repertoire of previous films is that it is largely character-driven rather than plot-driven. Some of the cast, like Lawrence and Cooper, depict caricatures of excess and ego, while every character dons exaggerated ’70s fashion trends. In a world where everyone is pretending to be someone else, American Hustle is a combination of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, mimicking voice-over narration and outlandishly retro perms. The fast-paced storyline, on the other hand, is convoluted at best, full of complicated love triangles, raunchy disco dancing and garishly alcohol-fuelled dinner parties.
Featuring a psychedelic soundtrack of songs from the time period, American Hustle is a masterpiece solely because of the talent of the actors. Bale drowns in colorful polyester suits, and, like he did in The Fighter, utilizes his external environment and physical figure to further flesh out his character. Likewise, Cooper draws on temperamental anger and a disorderly concealed mania similar to his character in Silver Linings Playbook. As a fraudster and object of desire, Adams manipulates men with an adeptly precise fake accent. Lawrence is brash and bold. She dominates over her husband just like a perfectly manicured, glamour queen, southern New Jersey housewife and socialite should. Even Robert De Niro gives a crafty, short performance, reprising his often-notorious role of a ruthless, menacing mob boss.
Beneath all the veneer of extravagance that makes up American Hustle, at the film’s heart is the exploration of the lengths taken to achieve the affluence and power of the American dream and the deterministic view that more is always better.
Whether American Hustle amounts to something more meaningful than elaborate comb-overs and flamboyant disco costumes flaunted by a star-studded cast remains to be seen. However, already bestowed with seven Golden Globe nominations by portraying the comical illusiveness of conning to the top of the American food chain, American Hustle is certainly a contender for Oscar season.