Amy Adams and Christian Bale star as two people who are forced to run a con on the mafia for the FBI in 'American Hustle.' (Columbia Pictures)
A crazed tale of con men, FBI agents, thugs, politicians and some dazzling-but-loony women, “American Hustle” is absolutely hilarious.
But there’s more than mere fun going on here. Writer-director David O. Russell, building on the basics of a real political sting in the ’70s, is exploring the dark and dizzy heart of American ambition from a number of angles.
Each kooky character brings his or her own set of desires and dreams to this story, whether it’s a quest for glory or just an easy scam. And no one is that easy to pin down — the corrupt politician may have good intentions, the over-anxious cop may be a slave to his own delusions of grandeur.
When you’re going this wacky and wide it helps to have an ace cast, and Russell certainly has that, gathered for the most part from his past two films. There’s Oscar-winner Christian Bale and Oscar-nominee Amy Adams from “The Fighter” alongside Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence and Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper from “Silver Linings Playbook.” Throw in Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K. and “Linings” Oscar-nominee Robert De Niro in finely tuned roles and you have the year’s most crackling ensemble.
Bale plays balding, bloated con man Irving Rosenfeld, getting by on a string of dry cleaners and some art forgeries and loan sharking when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (Adams) at a party. They somehow click instantly and she prods him on to bigger things. Those bigger things lead to Sydney getting busted by a high-energy FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Cooper).
DiMaso holds out a deal: He’ll drop the charges if Irving and Sydney help him bust some bigger targets. As they work together, Richie finds himself falling under Sydney’s spell, which of course makes Irving jealous.
And that brings up the complication that threatens to undermine not only Irving and Sydney’s relationship, but also the increasingly complex swindles they’re orchestrating. That would be Irving’s stay-at-home much younger wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), whose young son is the apple of Irving’s increasingly distracted eye. Rosalyn is semi-clueless, strongly opinionated, fearless, spoiled and unafraid to say whatever to whomever.
Eventually Richie has Irving going after a good-hearted New Jersey mayor (Renner) and other politicians while involving the mob in a fake scheme to revitalize Atlantic City. It’s around that time that Rosalyn starts dating a dapper mobster (Jack Huston) and Irving’s heart starts giving out on him. Who can blame it?
This isn’t giving away too much simply because there is so much rich material stuffed into this movie, from Irving’s elaborate comb-over to Richie’s beleaguered boss (Louis C.K.), from a startling interpretation of “Live and Let Die” to Sydney’s British alter-ego and Richie’s tight-curl hairdo. Between the outsize personalities and the wonderfully ornate plotting, this film doesn’t leave enough room for dull moments.
Each actor is in top form and yet again — and this is getting ridiculous — it’s the 23-year-old Lawrence who punches this movie into the stratosphere. Even with two Oscar nominations and one win under her belt already, it’s hard to see her not getting a supporting actress statue for the wild energy she brings to this role. At the same time, the film confirms that four-time nominee Adams can go slinky or sweet and even juggle the two to perfection. She may be Hollywood’s most versatile player.
Ambitious even as it studies, exploits and explodes ambition, “American Hustle” is as good as any American film this year. It’s also a lot of fun. Don’t miss it.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Running time: 138 minutes