From his quirky beginnings in the indie world to his more recent Oscary successes, filmmaker David O. Russell has played his directorial hand at many different honey pots, from teen sex comedy to acerbic war picture to pugilistic, dysfunctional family dramas, but up until now, playing is all the guy has been doing - but it is a long-time playing that has finally led to this, the director's seventh feature film, and very well his first truly great work of cinema. In fact, American Hustle, the 1978-set story of a group of con artists working (unwillingly, their collective hands forced) with the F.B.I. to ensnare corrupt politicians, may very well be the best damn Martin Scorsese film ever made by someone who is not Martin Scorsese. But there is much more to American Hustle than mere auteuristic hero worship and cinematic reverence.
Russell's film, the follow-up to his inexplicably praised Oscar big-wig, Silver Linings Playbook (yet another merely mediocre work being gilded to the high heavens come Oscar time), takes the best of the con game movie tropes, adds in the director's best impression of the aforementioned maestro Scorsese, kicks it up a notch or two with great casting and one hell of a nostalgic 1970's bent, twists it into a deft and biting dark comedy, and comes up with what is easily one of the best damn motion pictures of 2013. Hoo hah! The film is written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, and based on the ABSCAM operation of the late seventies. The film stars past Russell compatriots, Christian Bale as combed-over con man Irving Rosenfeld (based, as is most of the main cast, on a real participant of ABSCAM), with Amy Adams as his lover/partner-in-crime. Jennifer Lawrence as his long-suffering and long insufferable wife, and Bradley Cooper as the narcissistic fed fuck-up who drags Bale's huckster into the game to begin with. The film also stars Jeremey Renner (working with Russell for the first time here) as the Camden, New Jersey mayor that acts as target for this gang of grifters. What Russell does with his film, turning the genre on its head so to speak, is take a group of people who are usually marginalized in society as bad and/or pathetic creatures, and gives his con game a heart and soul. We feel for these people - well at least some of them - and we care what happens to them - again, to most of them. It's some pretty amazing shit actually. Russell has finally made his first truly great film of his career.
As for the acting of Russell's crew? Bale, of course, is quite spectacular in his role as the ultimate con-man. Methodically becoming the character, Bale brings his bravura presence into a character who is equal parts bravado-riddled grifter and in-over-his-head huckster with a heart of fool's gold. The deepest and most sincerely sympathetic character in the bunch. In other words, ring-ding-ding, Christian Bale is proving once again that he is one of the damn finest actors in the world today. Meanwhile Adams, Renner, and even Cooper do their respective things with a certain amount of juicy aplomb, but let's face it, it is Jennifer Lawrence who runs away with each and every damn scene she finds herself in - even those in which she shares the screen with the deceptively charming chameleonic Bale himself (well okay, maybe not with Bale, but hey, he is Christian Bale after all). Lawrence, in the atypical role of manipulative, and possibly semi-psychotic, femme fatale wife-from-hell, and after safer, less-daring roles (ie, a great talent going to waste playing characters anyone could play) in the blockbusters X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games, and her rather overrated Oscar-winning turn in Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, gives her bravest and boldest performance since her breakthrough role in 2010's Winter's Bone. Wicked (and wickedly funny), Lawrence riptides through the film in much the same way Sharon Stone did in Scorsese's (there's that name again) Casino, infusing her character with just the right parts of shallow gold-digger, wanton powder-keg, and lost little girl. A brilliant turn from a brilliantly underused talent. There is also a great uncredited cameo a little past the film's midway point, but I will just let those who do not know of said cameo, find that little tidbit naturally, as they watch the film. And watch it, you most certainly must.