Absurdly entertaining and sometimes poignant, David O. Russell's American Hustle is an electrifying romp back into the 1970s and early 1980s. The film is alive with colourful characters who are played with relish (and a lot of funky mustard) by an all-star cast, most of whom are already associated with Russell.
The ensemble is led by Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, surefire Oscar candidate Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro in a delicious crime cameo.
Writer-director Russell hustles us -- the audience -- by exploding a true story into pure fiction. The real events involved an FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM, which ended with a series of high-profile convictions. The 1978-80 sting targeted politicians, mobsters and businessmen and involved far-fetched plans with an Arab twist that were concocted by a known conman, Melvin Weinberg.
Russell, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with original writer Eric Singer, throws out a lot of the facts of the case, shifts the emphasis and focuses on a gaggle of irresistibly colourful characters. Reality here is heightened and exaggerated.
Bale, wearing a fake fat belly and labouring under the worst comb-over in hair history, plays the fictional version of Melvin Weinberg. The character's name is now Irving Rosenfeld. We love him because he is cocksure and charismatic, even though he is fat, ugly, rude and he wears tacky clothes.
Adams, showing more cleavage than a stripper, is Rosenfeld's accomplice and mistress. She works her cons with an English accent that makes her sound posh. Lawrence, whose big hair is heavily back-combed, is Rosenfeld mentally unbalanced wife. She resents her husband's philandering and scamming. Cooper, who perms his own hair into tiny curls, shows up as an over-amped FBI agent. He takes the sting to extremes. Renner, sporting the biggest pompadour since Elvis in the 1950s, is wonderful as a New Jersey politician. He gets hooked into the sting.
Russell messes with us by deconstructing the plot and moving the pieces around with glee. Bale serves as a narrator, but Irving Rosenfeld is unreliable. Our perspective shifts with flashbacks, with new facts and with the sudden appearance of new people. Lawrence, for example, does not show up for ages -- and then her character won't go away. Nor do we want her to. Lawrence is sensational in taking the wife into the outer space of crazy while still giving her heart. Even her insane confrontation with Adams ends with drama, comedy and a touch of sadness.
Actually, that is exactly what all of Russell's films do: They play with serious drama, they intercut with surreal comedy and they have the nerve to demand a genuine emotional reaction. Characters and situations are taken to operatic levels, but they are still based in reality, and that makes us care.
American Hustle may be the finest example of how well the Russell formula works, surpassing Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, his two most recent Oscar-nominated films.
What American Hustle does not do is serve as a morality play about white collar crime and corruption. Russell leaves thorny issues like that to other films, such as Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. American Hustle is too playful to get that deep.