Director David O. Russell has been enjoying an impressive run over the last few years. In 2010 he gave us The Fighter, which saw Christian Bale and Melissa Leo picking up Oscar statuettes and nominations for Amy Adams, his direction and the film itself.
He followed up The Fighter with last year's Silver Linings Playbook, which not only made everyone stop and say "Wait, Bradley Cooper can act?" but also saw the impressive feat of landing a nomination in each of the 6 major Oscar categories (picture, director, actor, actress, sup. actor, sup. actress) and a win for Jennifer Lawrence, which subsequently led to one of the best acceptance speeches in Oscar history. (I should also point out that SLP was picked number 2 in that year's Wood's Stock Top 10).
And now we have American Hustle, which serves as a sort of dream team-up of Russell's last two projects, uniting SLP's Cooper and Lawrence (and a scattering of supporting players) with Fighter's Bale and Adams and a side dish of Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. It's a late 70s/early 80s tale of corruption and con men that hooks you in its opening moments by passing from vintage studio title cards to a declaration of "Some of this actually happened" before landing on a bald and potbellied Bale who is laboring to arrange a comb-over that is, in the words of Adam's character, "elaborate."
Bale plays hustler Irving Rosenfeld who, along with his partner in crime/mistress Sydney (Adams), shakes down men desperate for a loan on false promises of financial assistance. "My fee is non-refundable," he tells them, "just like my time."
After the pair get pinched by an over-zealous and excitable FBI agent (Cooper) they're given the choice of either doing time or helping take down other scum like themselves. Sydney wants to run, but Irving is held in place by the manipulations of his off-kilter wife (a hypnotizing Lawrence, clearly having the most fun of anyone in the cast) who uses their son as a bargaining chip.
So our Bonnie and Clyde reluctantly agree to help out, but Cooper's wide-eyed agent has ideas bigger than his reach, and pretty soon the hustle expands to include a few politicians, a wealthy Sheik and a shadowy crew of knuckle-cracking casino mobsters.
American Hustle runs like a folk tale of bad people thriving and failing in the moral ambiguity of days gone by. No single character is completely hero, victim or villain, and throughout the two-hour running time allegiances shift and expectations are twisted.
The individual performances are superb, as Russell once again demonstrates his skill at creating interesting and dynamic ensemble pieces. Bale, as he does, disappears into his role while Adams and Lawrence spar as women simmering under the surface and Cooper rounds out the inner circle as an increasingly unhinged and drunk-with-ambition fed.
And Louis C.K., it should be noted, grounds the film as a jaded and practical superior to Cooper's Agent Richie DeMaso. After his work in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, the people's comedian is quickly establishing himself as an ace in the hole for understated supporting players.
In the hands of other directors, American Hustle could have descended into madcap comedy akin to 1986's Ruthless People (which wouldn't have necessarily been a bad thing), but Russell manages to carefully balance the tone and stakes so that the character's actions become increasingly unbelievable while still felling 100 percent natural.
*American Hustle opens in select theaters on Dec. 13 and nationwide Dec. 20.