Everything about David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” opening Friday, is a triumph and a stunner. If there’s any movie that puts an exclamation point to just how wonderful this movie year has been, “American Hustle” is the one. That it’s Russell’s best movie by far means that the often-bumpy – and obnoxious – journey of this wildly talented and tempestuous filmmaker has hit a plateau where critics, with all the justice in the world, are comparing him to Preston Sturges, that all-time great and fabled writer/director of such American classics as “The Lady Eve,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Palm Beach Story.”
That’s how astonishingly well-written “American Hustle” is by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. And that’s how exhilaratingly acted it is by actors who can almost now be seen as something of Russell’s Sturgesian stock company: Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who were so brilliant in Russell’s “The Fighter” (Bale won an Oscar for it), Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, equally brilliant in Russell’s lesser film “Silver Linings Playbook.” (Lesser or not, Lawrence deservedly won an Oscar for that one.)
Russell always has had something special going on with actors. It wasn’t always good (you can, if you’re a masochist, find some harrowing onset abuse on YouTube), but it’s worth remembering that in his 1996 film, “Flirting with Disaster,” a self-admittedly immature Russell somehow talked Mary Tyler Moore into a topless flash on camera.
“American Hustle” is hilarious. And crazy. And lovable. And satirically convincing in a way that an earlier piece of Russell omnidirectional cynicism – the smug, smarmy, insufferable “Three Kings” – couldn’t dream of being. On that one, George Clooney and Russell actually came to blows over “artistic differences.”
In its free-form comic fantasia on the story behind the Abscam Tapes, “American Hustle” is turning the story of a ’70s FBI sting of bribe-taking pols into an all-American sleazefest in which an FBI guy is even more on-the-make and sleazier than the professional scam artists. The noblest and most sympathetic character is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the fictional mayor of Camden, N.J., who truly, in his heart of hearts, wants nothing more than happiness and prosperity for the citizens of New Jersey.
And if taking money and dealing with sinister members of the mob gets Polito what he thinks his Garden Staters ought to have, he’ll do it. (Russell vet Robert De Niro, in a smileless turn plays a former hit man for Meyer Lansky, famous for leaving the corpses of his victims out in the open to set the proper example.) In Russell’s madcap, merrily malevolent world, real good guys are the ones who know they’re getting dirty, but they’re doing it for the most idealistic of reasons.
That’s not why the sleaze-bomb FBI hustler (Bradley Cooper) is strong-arming low-level con artists and sleazemeisters (Bale and Adams) into carrying out his plan to catch greedy pols in the act of sucking in bribes from ersatz Arab “investors.” He just wants the big FBI score. And, along with it, no doubt the career advancement and a way to humiliate his ever-cautious, rule-abiding superior. He’s played by the great comic Louis C.K.; that ought to tell you something.
In Russellville, there’s always a chance people will go nuts and lose control. That’s only one of many reasons actors love him.
Cooper has one of those scenes here, wearing a perm that seems to mix 1974 hair curls with Salvador Dali. “You gotta calm me down,” he yells at Adams, all eyes and plunging neckline. She plays a sensationally sexy ex-stripper who pretends, a la Barbara Stanwyck in “The Lady Eve,” to be British aristocracy.
Bale gets his nutso scene here too – and we all know how good he is at that in life. (YouTube awaits you with his tirade on a “Terminator” sequel.) What you don’t know, though, is how wryly lovable he is here as a paunchy con artist with a dry cleaning store, an art business on the side, and the worst comb-over on the East Coast.
The wildest of the movie’s wild cards is Lawrence, as Bale’s dangerously impulsive daredevil wife, a New Jersey suburban siren so self-confident that she’ll wade into a barful of homicidal mobsters jabbering the news that no one in her party will talk to them because they’re all too scared.
All of the major performances in this movie – Bale, Cooper, Lawrence, Adams – are sensational. But its true glory is the script, which, like Sturges, is giddily quotable all the way through. (It’s a major difference from the script for “GoodFellas,” which it also superficially resembles.)
Here’s our beautiful female con artist Sydney (Adams) on the art of victimizing the innocent: “Everybody at the bottom crosses paths at the pool of desperation. You’re there waiting for them.”
Too sophisticated for such a low-level con artist you say – someone who, after all, swindles people out of $5,000 to secure major loans that never arrive?
Well, what if she finds her sleaze-king lover and semi-partner at a party where they bond over a mutual love of Duke Ellington? What’s your favorite song he asks her. “Jeep’s Blues” is her gloriously off-the-wall answer – a genuinely sophisticated one that bursts out of this sophisticated and brilliant script.
“I know,” answers the man who’ll soon be her partner in love and crime. “Who begins a song like that?”
Who makes movies like THIS? A fully mature and amazing Russell and his burgeoning stock company, that’s who.
This is a movie for which the phrase “must-see” is not peremptory marketing hype – not if you ever loved American movies it isn’t.
Four stars (out of four)
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro
Director: David O. Russell
Running time: 129 minutes
Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.
The Lowdown: Acclaimed comedy/drama loosely based on the Abscam Tapes which caught corrupt politicos taking bribes in the 1970s.