Opens Fri., Dec. 20 at Sundance, SIFF Cinema Uptown, and other theaters. Rated R. 137 minutes.
We should mention right off that the New York Film Critics Circle, which decided it needed to be first in the stampede of awards groups doling out accolades this year, bestowed its best-picture prize on American Hustle. That was back on December 3, which means NYFCC members likely saw the film a few days (if not a few hours) before voting on it. This suggests something about American Hustle: If this isn’t a great movie, and it’s not, it sure is a fireworks display, designed to make an immediate and dazzling impression. The latest concoction from director/co-writer David O. Russell is full of big roundhouse swings and juicy performances: It’s a fictionalized take on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, in which the FBI teamed with a second-rate con man in a wacko sting operation involving a bogus Arab sheik and bribes to U.S. congressmen.
Christian Bale, loosened up by a risible hairpiece and appalling ’70s eyewear, plays Irving Rosenfeld, the scam artist. Along with the FBI coercing him into its scheme, he’s caught between his hottie moll Sydney (Amy Adams) and neglected wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, who collected her Oscar for Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook). Even more complicated for Irving is that one of the targets of the undercover operation, a genially corrupt yet idealistic Jersey politico (Jeremy Renner, of The Hurt Locker), turns out to be a soulmate. Equally unhappy is the presiding FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, his permed hair and his sexual urge equally curled in maddening knots), who’s developed a crush on Sydney that is driving him insane. This is a buoyant cast—Russell encourages his actors to go for it, and man, do they go for it—with Adams taking pride of place, definitively establishing that beneath her elfin features is the fierce survival instinct of a shark.
The movie’s fun to watch, if seemingly untethered. It would be nice to be able to avoid comparing it to vintage Scorsese, but the ricocheting camera and syncopated use of pop songs do seem awfully familiar, and just a little ersatz. (I will always be grateful to Russell for the sight of Lawrence hate-singing “Live and Let Die” during a fit of pique, however.) There’s also the odd sense that American Hustle doesn’t feel any actual outrage about corruption at high levels of American politics, except as an ironic outgrowth of a certain ’70s wackiness. Of course, perhaps these clumsy covert operations can only play as comedy, but the film cries out for the disciplined, angry satire of a Joseph Heller novel. What it provides instead, undeniably, is a rockin’ good time.