Just one year after his wonderful, uniquely offbeat valentine, Silver Linings Playbook, director David O’Russell returns with an amusingly brash American crime film. Here’s one of the year’s most entertaining films, filled with full-throttle performances, giant laughs and deliciously twisty plotting.
It opens with a title card that declares “Some of This Actually Happened.” As with most movies that are “Based on a True Story,” in part or on the whole, I could care less how accurate this is as a reflection of recent history. With some movies, reflecting the real events with consistent fidelity is necessary. In most cases, who cares? As long as it could have happened, feels honest and shares the same truths and general revelations as the source material, I’m willing to go wherever a good movie wants to take me, regardless of how accuracy. If anything, American Hustle comes across less like a story based on true life (though it is) than a love letter to crime movies from the ’80s and ’90s.
Christian Bale, in a spectacular performance, plays an East Coast dry cleaner whose chain of stores, business acumen and persuasive nature have led him to become a prolific con artist. He and his partner, a firecracker with a flair for a British accent (played by Amy Adams), find themselves, for reasons I don’t want to give away, working with a curly-haired mark (played by Bradley Cooper). As it typically goes down in movies such as this, a small-scale con becomes larger with each turn, and greed, power and control corrupt each of the participants. Those caught in the sticky web are Jennifer Lawrence, playing Bale’s controlling wife, and Jeremy Renner, as a friend and asset to Bale’s grand scheme.
To address the film’s greatest flaw, there’s nothing here that Martin Scorsese didn’t do first. O’Russell seems to have mimicked key plot points, a few camera choices, specific moments and the overall tone from Goodfellas, Casino and Mean Streets. Still, unlike well intentioned but forgettable wannabes like Blow, this one has the energy and vast amounts talent, in front of and behind the camera, to overcome how familiar much of it feels.
If you’re going to pay homage/send-up/rip-off/ Scorsese, this is how you do it. Less a celebration of excess and crime and more a character study on the nature of lying as a profession and lifestyle, there is a depth here that resonates past the sheer entertainment value.
This is one of those must-see turns from Bale. He’s a smart businessman whose insecurity is his Achilles’ heel. Renner’s politician is a character introduced as someone everyone likes and we believe it, as Renner conveys a warmth and directness previously unseen in his prior work. Adams is absolutely extraordinary: she has a monologue on the nature of deception that’s one of her finest moments as an actress. She is an enormously versatile actress, with a staggering range on display in films as varied as Enchanted, The Master and this one.
Lawrence’s flashy, admirably spunky turn will get most of the attention–she deserves it, as her career is on a roll and she’s a consistently strong actress. Yet even though this is another milestone for Lawrence, Adams is the bruised soul of the film, playing a professional liar who faces guilt too late. Cooper just keeps getting better and better, holding his own with his co-stars.
The real breakout performance of film from a newcomer is, of all people, comedian Louis C.K., who was misused in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine but not here. He’s a scene stealer as much as Lawrence. A great surprise cameo from a Scorsese regular only emphasizes that this is the best movie Scorsese forgot he made.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Scale)