Russell is far more interested in character than plot development, and that allows American Hustle to offer a real crowd-pleasing experience - one with profound social commentary.
American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a brilliant con artist who gets by in 1970s America by selling fraudulent art and hooking customers on empty loans, among other shady businesses/schemes. Irving finds a kindred spirit in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who is quick to become his confidant, partner and lover - despite her knowing that Irving is a married man, who wed the much younger Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) when she was a struggling single mother.
In 1978, Irving and Sydney get entrapped by the fledgling FBI agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who recruits the pair to assist him on a sting to take down corrupt New Jersey powerbrokers and politicians. The primary target of the operation soon becomes Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a highly-admired public official who falls hook, line and sinker for DiMaso, Irving and Sydney's illicit plan to stimulate the Jersey economy - one that ends ups involving a fake wealthy Sheik, real Miami mobsters, and a whole lot of palms getting greased.
The characters and events depicted in American Hustle were influenced by the FBI's real-life ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s/early 1980s, but the movie dispels any notion of being a factual recreation of those events (and wryly mocks films that wear their 'based on true events' label as a badge of honor) in the very first frame. Instead, director David O. Russell - drawing from a script draft by Eric Warren Singer (The International) that Russell heavily revised - uses the historical incident to create a skewering examination of U.S. culture, values, lifestyles and the American dream, as explored through an intimate character-driven feature that ranges from poignant to insightful and downright hilarious (sometimes, all three at once).
American Hustle, like Russell's last two films (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook), is far more interested in getting under the skin of its blue-collar characters than building a tightly-constructed plot. However, by deeply exploring the motives, insecurities and egos of the players (fictionalized versions of real people), Russell succeeds in not only creating a portrait of the 1970s that holds a mirror up to modern times, but he also (ironically?) probably gets closer to 'the truth' about what ABSCAM was all about than a just-the-facts memoir could've done. As with his previous work, Russell's circus act ultimately works because he's put together a crack team of talented actors, who are completely onboard for his latest roller coaster ride of human emotion.
Christian Bale put on 40 pounds and gave himself a terrible combover to portray Irving, which allows the Oscar-winner to create a cleverly subversive portrait of the prototypical Hollywood con artist. He's not a caricature either, as Bale also infuses Irving with a real sense of humanity and vulnerability, which makes the character feel right at home in the film's universe (somewhere between a farce and realistic depiction of life). Likewise, Amy Adams as Sydney isn't just a male's fantasy of a sexy lady sidekick, but a feminist portrayal of a person who - like everyone else in the movie - uses all of their qualities (in Sydney's case, that includes physical beauty and emotional charm) to their advantage, in order to seem more confident and smarter than they actually are.
Bradley Cooper once again proves that his range goes beyond slimy handsome bachelors, as his American Hustle character is very convincing - an ambitious man-child, who is able to believably switch gears between being too cut-throat and too gullible for his own good, moment by moment. Jeremy Renner is also successful with his take on Carmine: a politician who is sincere about his principles, yet is still willing to bend/break the rules in order to achieve his admirable goals. That said, the scene-stealer of the film is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's wife Rosalyn, a hot mess of a person who causes all sorts of trouble for those around her (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not), yet ultimately wants the same things as everyone else - to be loved and life freely, even if it requires some hard choices to get there.
Lastly, with regard to the supporting cast: the most noteworthy player is Louis C.K. as Richard's FBI boss, Stoddard Thorsen, whose relentlessly polite behavior and interactions with Cooper are one of the film's highlights. Meanwhile, recognizable character actors like Michael Peña (End of Watch), Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) and Alessandro Nivola (Ginger & Rosa) make brief appearances here, yet each one gets a moment or two to show more personality than another film might've allowed them (side note: there's also a rather funny cameo appearance that I won't spoil - you'll know it when you see it).
Russell's exuberant direction on American Hustle ensures that the cast has an electrifying atmosphere to draw inspiration from, as the film captures the live-wire environment and experience of life in a particular historical setting like few other movies in recent memory. The camera work and cinematography by Russell and director of photography by Linus Sandgren (Promised Land) have fairly prompted comparisons to Martin Scorsese's work - as has American Hustle in general (see: the soundtrack composed of catchy 1970s tunes). Yet, the visual storytelling choices are different enough to create a similar, yet unique style, rather than a kitschy imitation.
Meanwhile, the film's three editors - Alan Baumgarten (Gangster Squad), Jay Cassidy (Silver Linings Playbook) and Crispin Struthers (3 of Us) - prove able to organize Rusell's raw footage and countless amounts of actors improvising into a sprawling, yet satisfying three-act narrative. Admittedly, by the time the proceedings draw to a conclusion, the film gives into genre conventions and wraps up in a way that is more predictable, when juxtaposed against the exhilarating storm of frenzied human drama that came before (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook have the same issue).
By his own admission, though, Russell is far more interested in character than plot development, and that allows American Hustle to offer a real crowd-pleasing experience - one with profound social commentary, laugh-out-loud comedy and even unexpected moments of compassion, to boot. This is one con you won't regret falling for.
In case you're still undecided, here is the trailer for American Hustle:
American Hustle runs 138 minutes long and is Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence. Now playing in theaters nation-wide.