'American Hustle' juggles tale with finesse

Bradley Cooper, left, and Christian Bale star in "American Hustle."
January 5, 2014

I was worried about director David O. Russell. His latest two films have gotten progressively more...mainstream. “The Fighter” had its moments, but it was more straightforward than his earlier, edgier “Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees” and “Flirting with Disaster.”

Then, he dove straight into schmaltz with the supremely overrated “Silver Linings Playbook,” which won a slew of awards as it was released during the end of the year and hooked a bunch of hard-up critics with its by-the-numbers Oscar bait.

Russell returns to his riskier roots, apparently after binging on Martin Scorsese flicks for the last year, with “American Hustle,” an epic display of operatic narrative that is as tense as it is hilarious. With a plot line based loosely on the Abscam political scandal of the late '70s to early '80s, Russell imbues his film with style and a wicked sense of humor that are deservedly placing it on many a year-end best list.

We are introduced to our “hero” Irving Rosenfeld (played by a potbellied Christian Bale) in the opening scene as he is meticulously sculpting his combover with various glues, sprays and brushing techniques. It’s an early clue as to the manipulation we are about to witness in the scenes ahead. Rosenfeld is a low-rent con artist who is bilking targets out of thousands of dollars with promises of more money and services.

Along his journey, he crosses paths with fellow double-crosser Sydney Prosser (played by a never-sexier Amy Adams), who can grift with the best of them. He’s immediately smitten, and the two develop a partnership and relationship despite the fact that he’s married (to a severely damaged wife played by Jennifer Lawrence) and has a child.

Their scamming comes to a halt when they are busted by federal agent Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), a high-strung go-getter whose blind ambition drives him to use the duo for bigger traps involving higher-profile marks. Richie is soon falling for Prosser’s wiles, and gets caught up in his own hubris, leading him to mingle with increasingly dangerous company.

They start with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner in his most relaxed role yet), a highly coiffed Camden, N.J. mayor who’s so desperate to jump-start his tarnished town that he fails to question where the money would come from. The dealings lead them deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole of unsavory characters, leaving Irv and Sydney increasingly uncomfortable with Richie’s requests.

It’s a journey that leads to unexpected dealings and encounters, draped with an overall sense of dread that they are all in over their heads and on the verge of drowning at any moment. It’s all captured beautifully by Russell, who uses the era’s style to accentuate the overall sense of artifice in which our heroes are involved. He also cuts a mean (and meaningful) mixtape of the time, ranging from America’s “Horse with No Name” and Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and The Temptations’ “Papa was a Rolling Stone.”

But Russell is also backed by a top-form cast, especially with Bale’s immersion into his seedy role as the beleaguered Sal. The always-dependable Adams unleashes a sexuality that is both fierce and vulnerable, and is some of the best work she’s ever done onscreen. Cooper adds much of the comedic relief as the tightly wound fed (both figuratively and, with his permed-up mane, literally), and Renner adds the film’s true heart as the politician who wants to save his town at any cost.

It all slams together in a way that shouldn’t work as well as it does. But “American Hustle” juggles its tale with a finesse that demonstrates we are in the hands of a craftsman at the top of his form. It’s a welcome return from a bold director whose best days may still be ahead of him.

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