David O. Russell has definitely put his name on the map over the last few years, starting with 2010's The Fighter. He followed it up with the halfway decent Silver Linings Playbook, picking up an Oscar nomination while not winning, and if the buzz is right, he'll pick up another nomination for 2013's American Hustle. Will he? Will he win this time around? Only time will tell.
A self-made businessman, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) owns a string of dry cleaners in New Jersey, but that's just a front for his far more lucrative job. Working as a con artist, he sells forged art, pulls shady deals, but mostly he embezzles money from desperate men who can't do a thing because they're so desperate when they realize they've been fleeced. One day at a Christmas party he meets Sydney (Amy Adams), a goal-oriented young woman without the means to reach those goals. Polar opposites, they hit it off immediately, Sydney becoming an involved part of Irving's running cons, the money rolling in in piles. Well, it does for quite awhile at least. They've caught the eye of an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who rather than have them serve a jail sentence, enlists them in helping him run his own operation, taking down corrupt politicians looking to take bribes. Irving and Sydney know the plan isn't so simple, but they're left with no other alternatives. None of them know how far this plan could really go.
Two things came to mind when watching this Russell-directed flick, working off a script written by Russell and Eric Singer. One, it pays tributes to films like it from the past, embracing a throwback, retro style that plays well from the opening credits. Those credits are the old studio credits that a movie from the 1970s would have used, not the polished ones greeting audiences now in 2013. The style is everywhere, the big hair, the ridiculously awesome-looking suits as style changed in a big way between the 1970s and 1980s, the giant, spacious cars, the great soundtrack featuring everything from folk rock to soft jazz and everything in between, just the general look of 'Hustle.' It's like a modern period piece, if a quick trip to the past in the 70s/80s. It feels like we're in that fun to watch, visual and a very fun trip in a time capsule. Russell clearly spared no expense, and it shows, the atmosphere, the look (even in the background) all adding another layer to the story.
As for that second thing, it's the casting, a very talented cast from top to bottom. Having worked with Russell last year in 'Playbook,' both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence return here, both of them leaving their mark. Lawrence plays Irving's wife, Rosalyn, more than a little kooky in her conversations, beliefs and generally....yeah, everything she does. With Adams (vamping it up), Bale (chubbing it up), Lawrence (crazying it up) and Cooper (perming it up with an awesome hairdo), you've got an ensemble that should be able to carry any and all movies. And don't be fooled, this is the definition of an ensemble cast. Each of those actors are more than capable of carrying a movie on their shoulders, and they have so seeing their ample talents together in a single movie, it's a treat. Oh, and there's more. Also look for Jeremy Renner, comedian Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Anthony Zerbe, Elisabeth Rohm, Jack Huston, Alessandro Nivola and some actor named Robert De Niro appearing in a brutally efficient, uncredited one-scene cameo. Yeah, I guess that's a decent cast.
Heading into this movie, I had a general idea of what the story was about, an ever-moving story based somewhat loosely on a true story, dubbed Abscam. I don't want to give too much away, Russell's film covering a ton of ground in its 138-minute running time. It is a smart, well-written script that gives the cast a chance to show off their talents. Why does it work so well? It's simple; that story. Too often movies have to be about a gimmick, a message, about explosions, violence or sex. 'Hustle' instead chooses to focus on a crazy situation that keeps on getting crazy, all the cast getting their opportunities to step into the spotlight. It was refreshing to see a movie that's content to be just that; a good movie. The humor is never overdone, and there's a lot of it. I was surprised how funny the movie actually is, one laugh after another as this blackmail/entrapment scheme gets more and more complicated.
I can't pinpoint a weak acting performance in Russell's film, but for me, it's more than easy to identity the strongest performance here, and that goes to Christian Bale. Having already won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part in Russell's The Fighter (also co-starring Adams), Bale leaves another lasting impression with his most recent part. First of all, physically he put on a fair amount of weight, giving himself a nice little gut, while also favoring a truly amazing combover. In a weird way, Bale just commits to his Irving's goofy, gentlemanly style, but it's more than that. He makes Irving a real flesh and blood character, and oddly enough, one of the more sympathetic characters around because he's such an accomplished con man. Backed into a corner, Irving is worrying about maybe 13 different plates spinning all around him, also planning 15 or 16 moves ahead so he's always in control, even if it doesn't seem that way. It isn't necessarily a showy role, but that's what I liked it. Subtle in his delivery, letting his physical appearance add some laughs. It could be a busy Oscar season, but I'm betting money that Bale gets a Best Acting nomination. I hope he does.
If there is a weakness, it's that Russell's film covers so much ground with so many characters that by the end, it drags in parts. They all know what the ending will be, what it will offer and how it affects all the characters, but there are stretches getting to that point that slow things down needlessly. By no means is any of that complaint a dealbreaker. 'Hustle' is still an incredibly easy film to recommend. Could it use some tightening up? Probably, but you'll no doubt enjoy this one. Lots of talent, lots of fun.
American Hustle (2013): ***/****