Writer/director David O. Russell loves the characters he invents for his movies and he wants you to love them too. That's the unlikely revelation Russell says he experienced while taking several years off from a career that already had yielded much-admired films including Three Kings and Flirting With Disaster. When the filmmaker returned from hiatus, he began a trilogy of films — The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle — that he has widely described as focusing on characters who strive to lead rich and passionate lives. Emotion is the only thing that matters in these movies. That's a road fraught with peril for even the most talented filmmaker, but one that Russell navigates with remarkable grace in the exhilarating American Hustle. The film's full-bodied success was only hinted at by Russell's previous movies. No less than five unforgettable and award-worthy performances from an amazing ensemble cast show what it really means to collaborate on a character-driven film.
American Hustle began as a nuts-and-bolts retelling of the infamous Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which FBI agents posed as Arab sheiks to bribe corrupt public officials. The original script was good enough to make Hollywood's Black List, an annual survey in which film executives vote on their favorite unproduced screenplays. But that didn't stop Russell from rewriting it to suit his newfound vision. He turned the story's focus on two fictionalized con artists in love, Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams), FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper), who busts the couple and forces their participation in an escalating series of stings, and Irving's estranged wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose cannon in danger of blowing everyone's cover. The good-hearted Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) of Camden, N.J., becomes a primary target of the FBI. All defy categorization because Russell's script delivers the substance the actors need to dig deep and make the characters their own. Each has moments inspired and surprising enough to steal the movie outright.
With its propulsive style and joyous use of period music to set the tone, American Hustle carries a single, undeniable touchstone on its back: Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. (It's not hard to guess who shows up for a brief turn as the scariest mobster in America.) But there's a life-affirming warmth to Russell's film that's just not a part of Scorsese's world. Russell helms a famously chaotic set, in which he shouts new lines to his actors on the fly as the cameras continue to roll. As in many of the year's best Hollywood films, the director keeps his technique simple with natural lighting and three-dimensional sets that encourage spontaneity among the actors. It all adds up to a gaudy celebration of 1970s style wrapped around the most unsentimental and mischievous love story in ages.
If there's one endearing quality shared by each of the characters in American Hustle, it's that all are trying to figure out whom they're going to be when they finally grow up. There's nothing easier to relate to than that. "Some of this actually happened" reads the title card that starts the movie, and even when the credits roll you get the feeling that it's all still happening somewhere, to somebody. Reinvention may be the biggest and most American hustle of all. — KEN KORMAN