RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 4)
Credit the producers of American Hustle for knowing exactly where to spend their money. They opened up their wallets to land a ridiculously top-shelf cast, landing Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence to play conniving hucksters dishing out screw jobs all around, desperate for the big score at the expense of everyone around them.
The stars are so bright that all Robert De Niro can get is a bit part. They also went all out on the period detail, capturing the polyester , Jheri-curled, strobe-lighted audacity of the late 70s. And best of all, the money guys showed restraint when needed: The bra budget on this movie is exactly $0.
Director David O. Russell seems out to make his own Boogie Nights, somehow making high-stakes, dirty finance seem sexier than porn. Hard drinking, backroom deals, bathroom stall trysts and high-class hotel lobby after-after-after-parties are what make these rusty wheels go round. You have a good idea the whole time that nearly every character doesn’t know what they’re in for and are making dumb decisions that they’ll regret as they sink deeper over their heads, but damned if you don’t want to jump into the screen and join in on the doomed chaos.
The movie is based on FBI’s disco-era ABSCAM operation, in which feds teamed up with con men, while becoming con men themselves, to catch politicians taking handouts in exchange for political favors. There is madness infused in every whiskey-soaked corner of the screen, from cheap disguises, faker friendships, secret wiretaps and disingenuous back-slaps.
Bale is the standout — not counting the hypnotizing jigglyness of Lawrence — wearing a few dozen extra pounds and a laughable combover as Rosenfeld, a subrpime loan huckster who gets squeezed by the feds to land bigger and bigger fish. He’s married to the vacant, blubbering Rosalyn (Lawrence), while juggling his affections and cash flow with his partner and mistress, Edith (Adams). DiMaso (Cooper), who rocks an awesome set of curlers to create his Brillo head, is also a prime player in the shenanigans, with an eye on getting Rosenfeld under his thumb and Edith under himself in the sheets.
Both Rosenfeld and DiMaso are alpha dog scrappers who are always searching for angles, and refuse to give an inch. Watching them maneuever against each other and grudgingly work together, even as both continue to seek chokeholds is like grappling MMA brawlers, only without the homoeroticism. Add the screen-melting properties of Lawerence and Adams to the mix, especially when they kiss, and what you get is a volatile solution that’s impossible to turn away from.
There were times I thought “This movie is so damn good!” as I watched, hoping it wouldn’t end. Russell does such a good job of transporting you to the time, place and feel of its era you practically feel like it’s cocaine you’re wiping off your pants rathert than popcorn crumbs. Just don’t sniff them, OK?
Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. Directed by Russell. Rated R. 138 minutes.