Deviously antic, deliriously energetic, and unrepentantly jumbled, American Hustle is a stereotype-drenched piece of cockeyed comedy and a pratfall-ridden work of dazzling showmanship. It’s juicy, relentless, dizzying, diverting, and works from the feet up, leaving you revved and tickled. Writer-director David O. Russell has mashed up a larcenous cast from his last two films with elements from GoodFellas and Boogie Nights into a buoyant, glorious mess.
A loose version of the Abscam scandal, Christian Bale (The Dark Knight, The Fighter) is balding, bloated con man Irving Rosenfeld, coasting on dry cleaning and art forging and loan sharking when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, The Fighter, The Master) at a party. She prods him on to bigger things, leading to a run-in with an FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook), who makes them a deal: he’ll drop the charges if Irving and Sydney assist in busting some bigger targets. Eventually, Richie has Irving going after a good-hearted New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker) and other politicians while involving the mafia in a fake scheme to revitalize Atlantic City.
One person who virtually never disappoints (outside or within the context of Hustle) is Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook). As Rosalyn Rosenberg – a pathetic-appealing sexpot mingling of Carole Lombard and Lady Macbeth – Lawrence is a rara avis with beautiful plumage: she’s semi-clueless, opinionated, fearless, spoiled, and unafraid to say whatever to whomever, even if it’s casino mobsters in dark suits. Near the end, she performs a bracing interpretation of “Live and Let Die” that’s instantaneously catchy. Even with two Oscar nominations and one win under her belt already, it’s hard to see her not getting a supporting actress statue for the wild energy she brings to this role. Lawrence is having a blast, and her enjoyment is contagious.
Of course it delivers less than it promises: it’s a hustle of superficial pleasure rather than deep impact. It sells sparkle with an overloud and overlong story, and it’s hammed up beyond comprehension. For all its restlessness, it’s comparatively risk-averse. Helping to distract from the mediocre accents are a succession of outrageous plunging necklines and illustrious costuming.
American Hustle is an urban eruption of fun, a cleavage-infused feast of ensemble wiles, and a carnival-saturated essay on the brilliance of corruption. It makes you glad you were fleeced. It’s a fable of delusion and entropy, pure razzle-dazzle, that’s pulling a long con of its own and suggesting that American life is a colourful, meaningless shell game. It’s a capitalistic thrill, and a hell of a good time.