American Hustle

An acting masterclass delivered by some of Hollywood's best.
Tom Glasson
Published on December 13, 2013


'Based on true events' has been the theme for 2013, and why the hell not? Stranger than fiction and all that. Pick any genre and you'll find an example: Action - Gangster Squad; Comedy - Pain & Gain; Thriller - Captain Phillips; Horror - The Conjuring.

None, however, are as adept at circling the carcass of history and picking away at the choice bits like Drama. Even just to look at the 'now showing' or 'coming soon' listings is to see: The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyer's Club, Philomena, Fruitvale Station and The Railway Man — all in some way grounded in real-world events.

The question is how grounded, and that's why the opening to David O. Russell's new film American Hustle is so refreshing. "Some of this actually happened," it declares, acknowledging in those five simple words that — yes — liberties have been taken for your amusement, but also — yes — some of this stuff actually happened.

That stuff is the infamous 'Abscam' sting of the late 1970s, during which the FBI engaged two prolific con artists — Sydney Prosser and Irving Rosenfeld — to ensnare a number of high-ranking US politicians on corruption charges. Sporting elaborate combovers, fake accents and plunging necklines, Prosser (Amy Adams) and Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) were a retro Bonnie and Clyde pairing who used smooth words instead of Tommy guns to fleece desperate men of their savings.

Eventually caught by the FBI, they avoided jail time by agreeing to work alongside the ambitious agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), and atop their list of targets was a New Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). What began as a simple enough sting, however, soon ballooned out of control as hubris, greed and jealousy picked away at the already threadbare alliance and placed both the operation and their lives in jeopardy.

O. Russell is undeniably an actors' director, and like just his previous films (The FighterSilver Linings Playbook), American Hustle is built around its strong performances and crackling dialogue. Bale, Adams, Cooper and Renner are all at their best here; however, it's Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld's wife, Rosalyn, who steals the show. Part seductress, part clown, she moves seamlessly between the two extremes with such ease and speed that each can appear multiple times in a single scene. Keep an eye out, too, for an uncredited cameo by Robert De Niro as a mafia heavyweight in easily the most gripping of the film's 138 minutes.

Yes, it is long, and it definitely drags at times; however, it's also immensely funny and beautifully captures the flashy/trashy excess of the '70s — most notably in Adams' countless revealing dresses — for which none will receive any 'best supporting role' nods vis-a-vis her perilously positioned breasts. Yet even they have their place, establishing the complexity of a character who freely exposes all to the world save for the truth of who she really is. That's American Hustle, too: a layered and captivating film where you're never quite sure who to believe or which stuff actually happened.


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