Not that dark comedy or con games haven’t been done in movies before. But with “American Hustle,” Russell takes the routine mechanisms of a corruption-busting police procedural and turns it on its head.
He plays nearly every scene for ditzy comedy no matter how fraught with genuine peril or mental incompetence. He has entered Marty Scorsese territory with the sagacious wit of Mark Twain and satire and slapstick worthy of Preston Sturges.
You wouldn’t imagine a movie could contain so many mentally erratic character as “American Hustle.” Yet like a comic-acrobat, Russell keeps these crazy plates spinning as he dashes from one lunatic situation to another.
It has been commonplace to stick the word “American” in movies titles going back to the great “American Graffiti” and continuing on through “American Gigolo,” “American Beauty,” “American Pie,” “American Psycho” and so on. But this American earns its place by being distinctly so.
At every level up and down the police/crime hierarchy, its players reek of opportunism, lust and greed. Not so much for money (although there is that) but screwing over the other guy wins not only bragging rights but several more steps up the ladder to greater and shiftier corruption.
Russell (who wrote this dazzling screenplay with Eric Warren Singer) brings together alumni from his previous two films, Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter” and Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and an unbilled Robert De Niro from “Silver Linings Playbook,” to do justice to these achingly funny whack jobs.
He then adds Jeremy Renner, Michael Peña, Louis C.K. and Alessandro Nivola and they fit in just fine, thank you.
Russell’s movie takes a deep dive into the shallow waters of the old Abscam scandal of the late ’70s and early ’80s, where the East Coast FBI hosted a sting operation involving a fake Arab sheikh that took down a number of high-level elected officials and political operatives on corruption charges. But the sting never bagged any real money guys or the mob.
As the opening tab says, “Some of this actually happened,” thus freeing Russell from any need to adhere to actual events. Rather he enters the situation with free-wheeling characters all in screwball mode.
Like his last two films, everyone is in the process of reinventing his or herself. Given the guises they adopt, not to mention hair pieces, hairdos and accents, you never know at any given time who these people believe they are. Are they ultimately conning themselves?
“People believe what they want to believe,” Amy Adams’ character says at one point.
Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, an operator of a legit dry cleaning business. But he prefers cons such as phony art and, even more lucratively, a loan sharking operation that never quite delivers the loan once he pockets an upfront $5,000 fee.
As he says of one piece of forged art: “Who is the master — the painter or the forger?” That may be the controlling idea of this movie.
For all his paunch and fake thatch, he attracts the romantic interest of Sydney Prosser (Adams in a series of revealing costumes), an ex-stripper from out west who comes east for reinvention.
Irving has a highly manipulative wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), a Judy Holliday blonde with miswired brains to match, plus a son, whom Irving has adopted and truly loves.
Going into business together, Sydney transforms herself, in the wink of an eye, into Lady Edith, a Brit with London banking connection. Her added sex appeal greatly increases Irving’s success in phony loan sharking.
All goes well until she gets her hooks into Richie DiMaso (Cooper), an unstable though ambitious FBI agent. Caught redhanded, the couple can only agree to help him bag much bigger game.
This includes Carmine Polito (Renner, channeling Joe Pesci with a Liberace hairdo), a New Jersey mayor who genuinely wants to help his community by financing the redevelopment of Atlantic City but is congenitally incapable of not skimming off the top.
Within this scheme are other schemes: Sydney, er, Edith, lets Irv know that she intends to get close to Richie for insurance, but Irv — and for that matter the viewer — can’t be too sure if this isn’t double insurance as she is also acting out of jealousy and self-protection.
Ditto that for Rosalyn, who gets dragged into the Abscam scheme then goes into a fury when she realizes her husband’s “whore” is part of the plan. Next thing you know she’s playing up to mobsters and dishing dirt that can only wind up as mud (if not blood) on her husband and possibly herself.
No film has a better ensemble cast this year nor a funnier one. Yet the great thing is no one is playing any of this for laughs.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “If what you’re doing is funny, you don’t have to be funny doing it.” This wisdom is practiced here perfectly.
Whether it’s Lawrence nonchalantly blowing up a microwave or a fake sheik played by a Chicano FBI agent (Peña) — he looks vaguely foreign, right? — everyone is deadly serious. The laughs come from the characters’ manic energy and aberrational behavior.
Scene for scene “American Hustle” is funnier than any of the current mainstream comedies with comic actors — you know their names — straining so hard to be funny every second.
Even in the film’s scariest and most dramatic scene, when De Niro turns up as a no-nonsense lieutenant of Meyer Lansky to take over negotiations with the Arab, the scathingly funny subtext never fades.
This continues down to smaller roles such as Louis C.K. as Richie’s old-school supervisor, a modern-day Herbert Lom stuck with a gung-ho Inspector Clouseau, and Nivola as his boss, out for glory no matter what the cost.
Production values are fab as the ’70s get revived in all its disco-era, bad hair, plunging necklines glory. This includes a great soundtrack of jazz, pop and cocktail tunes from the era.
Linus Sandgren’s camera stays close to the actors but slips forward and then maybe back as if to point out a nervous tick here or look of utter despair there. Everyone is caught up in a game of which no one can predict the outcome.
If nothing else, “American Hustle” is the coolest movie of 2013.
Opens: December 13, 2013 (Columbia Pictures)
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Matthew Russell, Thomas Matthews, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Camp
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Atlas Entertainment
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriters: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Producers: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon
Executive producers: Matthew Budman, Bradley Cooper, Eric Warren Singer, George Parra
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Judy Becker
Music: Danny Elfman
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten
R rating, 138 minutes.