With an ensemble of performers that will be a hard push to beat throughout the new year, David O. Russell crafts an entertaining and tightly conceived caper out of the real events of the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970s. Surprisingly touching and featuring (unsurprisingly) an array of oddball characters, American Hustle sacrifices its historical background to tell a resonant story of regained love and second chances to great effect.
The film drops us into the middle of the story as a group of as yet unidentified misfits attempt to pull off a job amid a backdrop of hidden cameras and microphones. We know the stakes are high but to what end and for why? We're not yet indulged. The audaciously hilarious opening images of an overweight balding Christian Bale gluing his hair into place is sidesplitting in its silence; it's tough to imagine a more effortlessly shocking opening image coming along in cinema this year.
As Irving Rosenfeld's (Bale) voice-over takes us through his origin as a conman and his meeting with equally cunning true love, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and their successes and eventual downfall through FBI agent Richie DiMasso (Bradley Cooper), it's clear form the offset that we're in safe hands as the film lulls you into its cool pacing and confident direction.
The cinematic chameleon of Amy Adams is smartly cast as Rosenfeld's right hand woman and lover; in a film featuring characters who deal in deception for a living, as the FBI's grip tightens on the couple and their secret counter attack is left ambiguous at best, Prosser's intentions are never to be trusted as Adams retains a strong level of danger from a character who could be a best friend or worst enemy at the drop of a hat. This of course works as the film's dramatic arc due to it being on a kilter with Bale's endearingly frumpy turn; as the couple are forced to give the FBI 'crooked' politicians through financial dealings while juggling their own lives - mostly the firecracker that is Rosenfeld's wife played memorably by Jennifer Lawrence - its impossible to not want this man, played so gently by Bale to succeed.
American Hustle is entertainment through and through, with evenly paced and wisely placed humour throughout. It's hard to remember a film that gets more mileage out of its humour in hair, make-up, and costume changes alone. The drama naturally flattens as the plot strands and motives take over in the final stages, this is due to Russell being more interested in the characters and their predicaments rather than the historical context and to an extent this pays off as it avoids the history with a capital H look at the story. Though a standout scene involving a welcomingly intimidating supporting turn from Robert DeNiro certainly cranks up the heat as lives begin to hang in the balance.
Everyone is clearly having fun here and thanks to the human emotive elements being brought out so well it really pays off as intelligent popcorn fare of the highest order. Bringing the key actors in from his last two films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), Russell tells (albeit entirely on different ground) another story of reinvention and second chances - a universally powerful theme if there ever was one. Like his performers, the director is also having a back as he makes his throwback to 1970s American cinema. In one scene Richie DiMasso listens to Rosenfeld speak at a gallery of how the forger of art can be argued as being just as talented as the artist themselves. There's some mirroring here as Russell shoots and edits with the energy and passion of 70s greats Scorsese and Lumet to name but a couple, respectfully forging his own film successfully out of the mould left by these acknowledged masters.