If it’s shot like a Martin Scorsese film, edited like a Martin Scorsese film, and features a greatest hits soundtrack from the 70s and a Robert De Niro cameo…it must be a Martin Scorsese film, right? Nope. For while David O. Russell’s very entertaining “American Hustle” borrows heavily from Scorsese’s canon —particularly from “Goodfellas” and “Casino”— it stands on its own as a chaotic, funny and sometimes pathetic portrait of an America in love with its excesses, a country full of con artists and the marks willing to be taken for a ride.
And yet, because it borrows so heavily from Scorsese, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disappointment and déjà vu. Russell’s directorial voice is strong enough; he doesn’t need to mimic others. It took a second viewing for me to truly appreciate this tale of con men on both sides of the law and the effects their gamesmanship has on their own personal relationships.
Very loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s (an FBI sting operation that ended in the arrest and conviction of six members of the House of Representatives and one New Jersey senator, among others), “American Hustle” starts off as a love story between two kindred souls: the chubby, toupee-wearing Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, who gained 50 pounds for the role), owner of a chain of dry cleaners, a fraudulent loan business as well as a side business selling forged paintings; and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, in a role that requires her to show a lot of cleavage) who, keen on reinventing herself, takes on a myriad jobs, from strip dancer to a minor executive position at Cosmopolitan magazine. Irving and Sydney soon become partners in crime, she adopting a faux British accent and a new identity to snare their marks.
Their cons soon attract the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious, nasty, curly-haired piece of work who promptly arrests and coerces them into helping him set up a sting operation. Their first target: Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the popular Camden mayor, family man and altogether decent guy (despite his crooked connections) who wants to rebuild Atlantic City and create more jobs for his community. The scam is simple: convince Carmine that a wealthy sheik wants to invest in Atlantic City and catch him red-handed accepting bribe money. Hot-headed Richie screws up the sting and it’s now up to Irving to fix the mess. The operation soon becomes more complicated as congressmen, businessmen and even the Mob become involved.
Only three things could derail this sting: Sydney’s and Richie’s growing attraction for each other (or is this a con as well?); Richie’s ambition; and Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s needy, slightly unbalanced wife who has a nasty habit of setting fires around the house and eavesdropping on telephone conversations. Rosalyn is not exactly the kind of character you root for and yet, we can’t keep our eyes off of her, wondering what she will do or say next, thanks to Lawrence’s no-holds-barred performance. She’s a live wire that gives “American Hustle” its edge.
Let’s face it: this is really an actor’s movie, one where Russell lets his actors go wild. All, including Renner —whose honest, humble, personable take on Carmine could be easily overlooked given the level of showmanship shown here by Bale, Adams and Lawrence—, deliver tough, uninhibited performances. Cooper is out of control as Richie, a man whose imminent downfall is evident from the moment he appears on-screen. And while Russell seems to relish the notion of out-Scorsese-ing Scorsese in his use of zooms, tracking shots, and even voiceover narration, Christian seems to be relishing the idea of outdoing De Niro, sometimes sounding uncannily like him…until De Niro steps into the frame to show him how it’s properly done.
“American Hustle” is, undoubtedly, a showcase for Amy Adams. Here, she totally breaks away from the good girl roles she’s played in the past to embrace a darker, frail side. While her posture and her demeanor project sassiness, intelligence and shrewdness, her eyes, those eternal mirrors of the soul, reveal a woman full of pain, sometimes insecure, and at times even vulnerable. It’s one hell of a feisty performance.
“American Hustle” razzles and dazzles you. It may once and for all reestablish David O. Russell as a directorial force to be reckoned with. But Scorsese he ain’t.