There’s something glorious about the chaos of American Hustle, a screwball comedy – crime drama that’s both hard to watch and unbelievably compelling at the same time. Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) has crafted one of the most fiercely entertaining films of the year; it’s both intense and downright hilarious from beginning to end, taking pride in its ability to live in the present as much as possible.
The energy level that Russell is able to maintain on screen is astonishing. American Hustle takes you on a ride and doesn’t let go, keeping you drawn in throughout all its insane twists and turns. I was never sure how I should react to what I was seeing on screen, but I think that’s the point. The movie teases the audience, compelling you to laugh or empathize with its characters, only to tear away your fleeting reaction in the next frame. It’s as if Russell is scolding us for attempting to feel anything deeper than what’s presented. Every serious moment is followed with something comical; every moment of humor is wrapped in a layer of depression, and that’s just how it’s supposed to be.
The film opens with the overweight stomach of Christian Bale on the screen, followed by him staring in the mirror at his bald head, attempting to craft a complex comb-over. The scene compels us to laugh at what we’re seeing, a man (a movie star, no less) desperately trying to make himself look young and unnaturally presentable. But there’s also something sad about the whole ordeal that’s hard to put your finger on. This is American Hustle in nutshell.
We later learn that Bale’s character, Irving, is an accomplished con-artist looking to expand his business. He recruits his new lover, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), to join him, hoping their romantic chemistry can translate into bold new cons. Sydney seems naturally gifted at taking money from unsuspecting men, going so far as to create a character for herself named “Lady Edith Greensly”, who has bogus royal blood and fictional London banking connections.
The duo expand their enterprise of giving out false loans until they’re caught by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a manic FBI agent whose weaknesses include Edith and cocaine. Richie blackmails Irving and Sydney into helping him arrest Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a good-natured guy who is entrapped into accepting bribes.
Somewhere in all this deception, the love between Irving and Sydney begins to sour, with Sydney trapped in the character she’s created, unsure if her manipulation of Richie is genuine or all part of her own plan to avoid prison. The love triangle between Sydney, Irving, and Richie is complicated beyond comprehension, yet devilishly enjoyable to watch from behind the fourth wall.
There’s also a series of side stories about Irving’s sexy, sociopathic wife (Jennifer Lawrence), a mob boss who wants to expand his casino business (Robert De Niro), and a phony Sheik (Saïd Taghmaoui) who is used to manipulate Polito. The story is as anarchic and complex as it sounds, but in the case of American Hustle, that’s a good thing. This film wouldn’t work if the narrative was straightforward. It’s the sensational writing and the stylish direction that makes this movie work.
American Hustle is flawlessly directed; Russell knows how to make every scene compelling, throwing in perspective shots to make us feel as though we’re witnessing all the madness first hand. The performances he’s able to get out of the actors are incredible, serving as a reminder of the talent that’s behind the star power on screen. Somehow the cast is able to keep up with the craziness, despite their character’s motivations never being clear one scene to the next. We learn very little about who any of these people are; they each live in the moment, often existing only scene to scene. But somehow, they are so interesting that I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
In terms of direction and performances, American Hustle is one of the best films of 2013. Part pulp and part work of art, it’s an entertaining work of genius, destined to be a timeless classic. This story and these characters, while rooted loosely in reality, could only exist in a movie. It’s the visual style that’s the glue that holds everything together, creating the tone that commands us to enjoy ourselves, which in turn allows us to make sense of the senseless. I didn’t think it would all ever come together, but when the fogs of deceit and confusion clear, the conclusion left me more than satisfied.