Why are people so intent on comparing David O. Russell's AMERICAN HUSTLE with Martin Scorsese's upcoming THE WOLF OF WALL STREET? First off, it's not a contest. There can be two truly great ensemble dark comedies that incorporate the themes of greed and freewheeling disrespect of the law without one laying claim to being better than the other. The two films are actually remarkably dissimilar in both their execution and the filmmakers' view of their characters. While Scorsese clearly has something of an admiration for the levels of chaos reached by his antiheroes, Russell seems more intent on getting below the surface and figuring out just what makes his deeply flawed and easily manipulated characters tick. But one wonders if said ticking is the sound of a finely tuned motor keeping these people moving forward or a time bomb counting down to their inevitable destruction.
Since so much about the FBI sting operation known as Abscam is still confidential, writers Russell and Eric Singer have built an entire fiction around a small amount of actual hidden-camera footage of fake sheiks giving various politicians (including a U.S. senator) bribes to help out with getting U.S. citizenship applications expedited for criminal purposes. But long before we get to that, we must meet and appreciate the greatness that is Irving Rosenfeld, (Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable), he of the bad posture and even worse combover, but a guy who knows the angle and how to maneuver people to invest money with him that they'll never see again. He's got his fingers in the art world, real estate, banking, and it's all complete bullshit. But Irving knows when to apply pressure and when to pull back just enough not to appear too eager, and Bale captures his master con artist at work.
Rosenfeld also has a volatile relationship with his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and her son (whom Irving has adopted and has a genuine affection for). To put it bluntly, Rosalyn is high strung and unpredictable, but she has next to no idea what Irving does for money; she just resents the fact that he disappears for days on end, leaving her bored and eager for a little fun. She's also impulsive, tending toward knee-jerk reactions when she feels she's been slighted. Her new favorite thing is starting fires in the house "accidentally," but as the film goes on, her tendency to plot against her husband just to get him to pay attention to her becomes dangerous. And by the way, Lawrence has never been better — not surprising since Russell directed her just last year to her first Oscar win in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.
Irving's true partner in crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a worldly Brit who says she has ties to the banking world in Europe, which sets up a great scam for Irving and her that earns them quite a lot of cash and kick starts a love affair that neither can deny. But eventually they get busted by the FBI and are coerced by Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into using their con-artist ways to help the bureau set up a sting operation meant to rope in local criminal elements from New York and New Jersey. But before long, they start pulling in bigger and bigger fish, beginning with a Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who isn't even aware that his new partners in building up his state are using his connections to ensnare more powerful people.
If AMERICAN HUSTLE can be accused of anything, it's that all of the actors seem to be ramped up like their collective energy is going to launch a rocket into space. But each of the players work and bounce off of each other like charged molecules; each character has their own collection of idiosyncrasies that collide with the others, either exploding into violence or attracting each other or both. Except for Renner, the main actors in the film have all worked with Russell in recent years, either in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK or THE FIGHTER, and I think that makes the chaos seem more controlled and deliberate. These aren't just famous faces yelling at each other like a second-rate acting class.
Watching these performers utterly lose themselves in these roles is a total blast, and it helps that the supporting case (including the likes of Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm, and even Louis C.K. as DiMaso's nay-saying direct supervisor, who does misery in the workplace better than I've seen it done in ages. I should add that it's great to see Renner find himself as an actor again and just bite into a role and never let go. He hasn't really done that since THE HURT LOCKER (or maybe THE TOWN), but he's an absolute pleasure to watch in AMERICAN HUSTLE—pretty much everyone is.
The film is steeped in the late 70's-early '80s: looks, clothes, cars, interior decorating and some incredible music (including a cue for "Live and Let Die" that might even top its original usage). And the deeper the operation gets, the worse nearly everyone's life becomes. There are a few unexpected twists and turns (and a couple of surprise cameos) that keep things lively and interesting; the script is sharp and offers up some of the best confidence tricks and tricksters this side of The Sting, and the performances never cease to impress. Love affairs flash on and off, usually because someone seeks to gain from them. And as serious as all of this sounds, the resulting film is a rousing hoot.
Russell and company couldn't care less about the politics involved in this scandal (but if they had, it probably would have been equally impressive); for the filmmakers, AMERICAN HUSTLE is about the individuals and the way they interact, clash or otherwise get physical. Adams is highly watchable in pretty much everything she does, but she's extraordinary here, going back and forth between consummate professional scammer to seductress to jilted woman. It's a fully packed performance, and while much of the talk to date about the female performers has been about Lawrence, Adams gives us career-defining work here.
Parts of AMERICAN HUSTLE feel vaguely familiar. I think it's safe to say Russell may have seen GOODFELLAS and BOOGIE NIGHTS more than once in his life, but if those are your benchmarks, more power to you, especially if you have the script and actors to back it up, and he certainly does. The film is an unexpected, thoroughly enjoyable trip through space and time; be prepared to laugh and care about these characters far more than you might believe you could—except for Lawrence's Rosalyn; her you'll hate for all the right reasons. Enjoy the hell out of this one, and worry about THE WOLF OF WALL STREET nex t week on its own terms and merits.