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David O. Russell's American Hustle brings the biggest stars from his previous two movies and pits them in a two-hour yelling match, in which everyone is trying to con everyone else and no one is happy with each other's performance. The film, centered on the late 1970s ABSCAM scandal, which brought down politicians with ties to the mob, is a guide to acting at its best. It continues to show how Russell is one of the best directors when it comes to getting great performances out of talented stars, even if he goes a little too far to be creative in the editing and camerawork departments.
Hustle kicks off with a brilliant silent moment with Christian Bale, who stars as Irving Rosenfeld. We see the con man getting ready for another scam, fixing up his laughably bad hair and putting on his toupee. Russell immediately puts the audience in the middle of the process, as Irving, his girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams) and another partner, Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper) try to get Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) on tape taking a bribe. But things go wrong and we quickly learn that Richie is an FBI agent and Irving is working for him as part of a deal. Writer Eric Warren Singer and Russel then go back, explaining how we got here.
That really introduces the audience to the film's style. Unlike the linear The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell decides to play with time, inserting short sight gags and even longer moments in the past into the action. He's having a little more fun with the audience, and perhaps too much. After making two really great films, Russell seems to get a little careless in keeping the plot straight, leaning on some incredible performances to keep the ship straight.
The plot is loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal, just the names and other details in a scandal that came on the heels of Watergate have been changed. Richie catches Sydney (known to him as Lady Edith Greensly) and Irving in the middle of their latest scam and convinces them to work with him on an investigation into the building up of Atlantic City. Irving knows Carmine, who will do anything to make his state better. They con him into taking money from a make-believe Sheik, who will invest in building casinos. The Congressman comes in when casino magnate Victor Tallegio (an uncredited Robert DeNiro) suggests that the Sheik needs U.S. citizenship to lend legitimacy to the endeavor. What follows is a brilliant montage of Congressmen coming in and out of a hotel room, with all of them taking money.
Meanwhile, Irving's private life is a disaster, since Sydney is really his mistress. He's actually married to Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and they have a son together. A rivalry between Sydney and Rosalyn arises and the real challenge for Irving is to keep the two parts of his life apart.
Russell and Singer crafted a film filled with moral ambiguity. Is Cooper's character really doing this to get corruption out of politics or is it just to raise his profile?
Russell's directing style features a real in-your-face camera, keeping you ever aware of movement, and he really loves to get as much out of montages as he can. It's clear that he's attempting to make a Martin Scorsese film and does a pretty good job of it. But Scorsese is better at sticking to the plot, which is where Russell deviates from Scorsese. Russell relishes the performances he's getting from his actors. He's in love with the way Lawrence moves, Adams' piercing green eyes, Cooper's bearded smirk and Bale's scraggy look. He lets them excel at their job – the scene where Adams reveals her true identity to Cooper was truly the most impressive bit of acting in the film.
American Hustle's plot falls by the wayside at some point and Russell decides that the characters are more important. It's for our benefit, since we get to see everyone - Cooper especially - shine in new roles for the director. This isn't the ultimate crime/heist movie we may have been hoping for, but it is the dialogue-heavy, '70s-clad dark comedy we want to see.