Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell has made a film that is
superficially about the Abscam operation by the FBI in 1978. However,
this movie is really about movie-making. Russell has made it clear that
his previous work was very much a personal expression, inspired by the
issues concerning his son. As such, American Hustle is very much a personal expression, inspired instead by the issues concerning himself, possibly during the filming of I Heart Huckabees.
American Hustle opens with Christian Bale who plays Irving Rosenfeld, a fat and ugly con man getting dressed and putting on a hair-piece and fixing his comb-over. Even though it's a shocking moment for an actor who was last seen in masse as Bruce Wayne, the suave, debonair and handsome billionaire, it would have just been a regular moment, giving us a glimpse of a little, depicted ritual for overweight and balding men all across the United States. Yet, thinking about it in retrospect, Irving is an actor putting on his character, doing his hair and makeup before he walks out on stage.
This is made more clear in his voice-over later when he talks about reinventing himself. His love interest Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, also has a voice-over where she talks about reinvention and "being someone else." In a later scene, we see her trying on different outfits and even a foreign accent, as if she's preparing also to walk on stage. A sentimental moment where Irving and Sydney are swirled by a rack of dry cleaning is almost as if they're swirled by costumes for some independent film.
After a point, Irving can't sustain the charade. He grows tired of the perpetual performance. For if American Hustle is a film about film-making, then it's required that the actors within are method and maintain their characters for hours on end. Any man would get tired and Irving does. He's not physically tired as he's morally tired.
Bradley Cooper co-stars as Richie DiMaso, the ambitious and over-zealous, FBI agent who pushes to use Irving and Sydney's con artist skills to expose political corruption within the New Jersey area. Richie particularly focuses on the Mayor of Camden, a popular man named Carmine Polito, played by Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol). The problem is that Irving gets to know Carmine and starts to like him. Whatever corruption Irving has, it pales to the good he's trying to do to better his city. Irving realizes that and becomes conflicted. He then just wants out.
In a way, he does disengage. It's at that point that Irving is less an actor in the film-making metaphor and more of a director. He battles with Richie who wants to be director but settles more for the role of film producer. This is evidenced through his constant demands of his FBI supervisor Stoddard Thorsen, played by Louis CK, and like any producer, Richie is constantly pulling for more money for the project. Richie and Sydney do concede that this becomes Irving's "vision," which in Hollywood the word "vision" is one that is often ascribed to the director.
While he does become hesitant when Richie pushes them farther and deeper, going from a small independent film to a big-budget blockbuster, Irving is still very much the head of this production. Like any good production, the bottom line is getting good shots in the camera. Russell does make this obvious with Richie making sure the hidden camera is properly set-up to catch the corrupt politicians accepting bribes.
Russell weaves this film about film-making, but at its core it goes back to these characters as representing actors, and the toll that acting to this degree can have on a person.
All that being said, this movie, like most of Russell's film is a comedy. The one glaring exception is The Fighter (2010), which gave Bale his first Academy Award. Yet, Bale is giving a very comedic performance here, one that's boosted with the very funny antics of Cooper but most especially Jennifer Lawrence who Russell used to great effect in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which gave Lawrence her first Academy Award.
Lawrence is by far the funniest thing in this movie. She is a laugh riot. It's because of her alone that makes this movie a hundred times funnier than Anchorman 2. The bit about the microwave oven, the bit about her "sweet and sour" finger nails and the bit where she sings Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" are hilarious.
There were some funny moments outside of her like the scene featuring Robert De Niro. Cooper and Louis CK were holding a lot of the comedy as well. I have no real criticism, except some of the narration was redundant. Otherwise, this is a really entertaining film.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.