American Hustle begins with the tag "Some of this actually happened," and what follows is a period crime picture based on a true story that is less about exactly what happened and much more about what it might've felt like. The film is spectacular. The performances from Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner explode off and catalyze each other, the acting version of the debris-field kinetics of Gravity.
The basis of American Hustle is the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are con artists who catch the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). The cops force the robbers to help take down other criminals in the underworld of grift and graft, but some bigger fish swim into view, including Carmine Polito (Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and some organized-crime figures. Complicating proceedings mightily are Irving's wife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Lawrence) and DiMaso's boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.)
American Hustle shoots David O. Russell into the rarified air of Martin Scorsese and P.T. Anderson. His film is so intently focused on the performances and emotional sparks it's almost startling. The mix of camera position, actor, and dialogue creates an intimate humidity. American Hustle is an erotic film because Russell elicits an anticipation of sex rather than the act itself. Within the plot, betrayals of infidelity are about intellectual turn-ons rather than physical intercourse.
American Hustle is hot-blooded cinema. At times, it achieves a heightened, feverish abstraction where it seems like the summation of every '70s movie, every con movie, every stylish camera dolly, pan, and zoom. It contains an infinite mirror of con games but doesn't make you have to keep up with them. To find out where you are in the funhouse, you need only take the temperature of the affairs between the main characters. The script is twisty and mad and rambling and not overly interested in procedure — but still keeps all the mechanics in. Like most Russell films, American Hustle is concerned with big, loud, messy families — the ones we inherit and the ones we make.
Adams gives the performance of the year. Her Sydney/Lady Edith Greensleeve is every bit as indelible as Joaquin Phoenix in The Master or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, the last two performances that were this hungry. As Rosalyn, a "Picasso of passive-aggressive karate," Lawrence is a snort of coke.
Opens Friday, December 20th