For me there’s nothing like that familiar buzz of excitement I feel when I’m anticipating a new movie. I eagerly awaited American Hustle because crime dramas are among my favorites, and I looked forward to the reunion of Oscar nominee David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and charismatic lead actors Bradley Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines) and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Amy Adams (Man of Steel), Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), and Jeremy Renner (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) rounded out the talented cast, making for a promising lineup. Awards season is upon us, and you’ll hear lofty praise for American Hustle in the coming weeks and months. While it’s not the instant classic I thought it might be, I found its performances to be nearly flawless – and it’s one of the better movies I’ve seen this year.
The film takes place in 1978, and much like my fascination with Argo I have a personal interest in a depiction of the time period around which I was born. The film centers on the relationship between three people: a con-artist couple and the federal agent with whom they cut a deal to avoid jail time. Irving and Sydney (Bale and Adams) have a passionate, tumultuous relationship based on a shared, volatile chemistry essential to their grifter lifestyle. There is genuine affection between the two, but the dynamic of their relationship is inherently complicated. Irving is mired in a loveless marriage to Rosalyn (Lawrence), an immature, impetuous woman from whom he cannot extricate himself. Despite their apparent unhappiness, they have a lasting connection that isn’t easily broken.
Irving’s loyalty to Rosalyn and her young son preclude him from making a clean break in favor of Sydney, and this drives a wedge between the pair despite their uncanny success at separating fools from their money. After being caught mid-hustle by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), Sydney and Irving are given little choice other than to cooperate with authorities by bringing in some proverbial bigger fish. Richie is ambitious and wants to make a big splash with a significant bust; he’ll do anything to break up a major criminal enterprise. His “cowboy” attitude jeopardizes Irving and Sydney, as they’re the ones who must do the double-crossing of any prospective mark. As their relationship woes increase, Sydney grows less enamored with Irving and more willing to exact a measure of revenge with Richie, who is all-too compliant. Whose side is she on, and are two well-oiled hustlers really ready to drop a dime?
David O. Russell delivers once again, always able to elicit the best performances from Cooper and Lawrence. Cooper is starting to bring a characteristic realism to his roles, and there was a manic, visceral quality about his performance. Bale turned in another transformative performance as the well-intentioned Irving. His character could have easily been a sleazebag, but Bale made him a sympathetic figure for which viewers could feel compassion. Lawrence made her supporting role a layered and textured one, conveying subtle depth beyond first blush. Russell’s storytelling was superb, and I appreciated the briefly non-linear way he began the film. The performances were buttressed by authentic cinematography and costuming, which masterfully captured the era. The movie seemed to get a little stodgy about halfway through, but I thought it rebounded well in its final act. Definitely worth checking out. Grade: B+