Early on in American Hustle, con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) points out a fake Rembrandt to ambitious FBI man Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). “It’s so good that it’s real to everybody,” he explains. “Who’s the master: the painter or the forger?” Behind the camera, David O. Russell concocts his own skillful imitation, coming up with a wholesale homage to Martin Scorsese that is shot through with so much humour and style that nobody’s going to leave feeling cheated.
As with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Hustle sees Russell take a well-worn formula and rebuild it from the ground up, retaining the familiar structure while refreshing the components, aided in no small part by extraordinary performances that repay off-kilter casting choices.
Christian Bale (who nabbed an Oscar for his coulda-been-a-contender turn in The Fighter) gets the boldest transformation, playing bloated, jazz-loving grifter Irving, whose comb-over is as elaborate as his schemes.
He meets and falls in love with former stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and together they work up a modest racket that’s just the right side of smalltime, until DiMaso snares the pair into helping him with a series of busts (loosely based on the Abscam political sting of 1978).
Because Russell favours the interpersonal plotting – divided loyalties, strained relationships, duplicitous role-playing – over the details of the actual con, you might not grasp every detail of corrupt mayor Carmine Polito’s (Jeremy Renner) plan to bring gambling to New Jersey, but you’ll have a sense of the rising stakes when his mobster connections throw their chips in.
With the entire cast on their A-game, depths are found in characters that could’ve easily been caricatures. Adams vamps it up (any outfit without a daring, bare-all neckline seemingly vetoed), but retains a below-the-surface vulnerability. Cooper brims with eagerness and naivety, while rocking a vanity-free perm.
The supporting cast are ace too, with Jennifer Lawrence stealing it with a thundering turn as Irving’s desperately unhappy housewife (dubbed “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate”), igniting every scene she’s in, often literally. A cameoing Robert De Niro joins his co-stars in the make-up chair to deliver his most sinister turn in years.
Russell’s hazily shot vision of the ’70s, in which big hair and outlandish outfits are mandatory, is one you want to wallow in, even if the pace does dip occasionally and the grand plan doesn’t have quite the sucker-punch pay-off you’d hope for.
But with juicy performances, smoking sexual tension and an electrifying soundtrack (some song choices play like narration), there’s no doubt that Russell is the real deal.
Funny, sexy and stylish as hell, Russell’s Scorsese homage lacks the zip of Marty’s greatest work, but makes up for it with hilarious dialogue and a killer ensemble on top form.