In American Hustle, star power is everything.
It's how Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a pudgy con-man with a bad toupee and diarrhea of the mouth, fidgets his way into untold wealth through phony loans and fake art. It's how a hot-head (borderline unstable) FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) can come to run a major federal investigation into political corruption. It's how Irving's girlfriend and scheme partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) can convince their marks (and, later, Richie) that she is a British heiress named Edith Greensly.
But more importantly, it's how a powerhouse Hollywood cast can make such a noisy, messy film worth watching.
The ad campaign for American Hustle doesn't do a great job of explaining the movie's plot, though it's not exactly crystal clear once you start watching.
Loosely based (and I mean loosely -- the title card brazenly says, "Some of this actually happened") on the ABSCAM investigation of the '70s, American Hustle follows the uneasy team-up of the FBI with the con team of Irving and Sydney.
The FBI wants to expose corruption in the upper levels of politics, so it cooks up a scheme involving potential New Jersey development and a Middle-Eastern Sheik to entrap politicians. The success of this scheme becomes a foregone conclusion almost as soon as Irving and Sydney are compelled into cooperating, leading the film to meander to the end with low stakes.
But the meandering is part of the fun. Anyone who enjoyed Bale's performance as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter (also directed by David O. Russell) will appreciate his rambling portrayal of Irving, a con artist with a heart of gold.
No director generates more naturalistic performances than Russell. He only cuts when he has to and he lets the conversations sprawl to the brink, whether they be arguments between Irving and his wily, immature wife played by the magnetic Jennifer Lawrence or shouting matches between Richie and his boss (Louis C.K., whose character is the only "rational" one in the film).
The period details are great, especially the opulent '70s costumes (Adams' character is the least interesting of the stars', so Russell seems to have compensated by letting all her shirts be low-cut to her belly button). The soundtrack is solid, but sometimes it gets a little loud and obvious -- love "Dirty Work" by Steely Dan in the opening credits, but do we really need "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" to tell us the characters are done having fun?
The movie's most sympathetic character is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, N.J., whom the FBI targets as the linchpin between them and the politicians. He's not above taking the bribe, but he also does it in earnest, as he genuinely cares about the well-being of his constituents and thinks the potential development will help them.
Who's worse: Him, or the guys setting him up?
Whatever the movie's saying about him is the closest thing American Hustle has to a point.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.
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