David O. Russell's American Hustle is at times both deliciously sexy and hilariously unsexy in its attempt to portray the awful, scheming hustlers we all pretend not to be. This isn't a movie about one man or one real-life controversial FBI sting operation -- it's about figuring out where to draw the line when it comes to success. How many people do you screw over? How many lies do you need to tell? How many hearts will you need to break in order to become everything you've ever wanted to be?
American Hustle is like a cautionary tale for idiots. Here's what not to do in order to get ahead in life. Its characters are scumbags and their motives are almost always suspect, but the brilliance of this film lies in the weird way they all win you over. You won't like any of them, but you'll love watching them. From Christian Bale's gross beer belly and accountant-like combover to Jennifer Lawrence's boozed-up, foul-mouthed rants about microwaves, by the time Bradley Cooper is running his mouth off inside his mother's house with curlers in his hair, you'll be laughing so hard at the absurdity of it all that you'll barely have time to notice the alcohol and cigarette stains on your soul.
"Some of this actually happened" is how it all opens, alluding to the Abscam sting operation that plagued New York newspapers in the late 1970s. This was one of those classic bats**t stories where the FBI cut a deal with some low-level con artist from Long Island, agreeing not to prosecute him in return for his help in setting up a scam to trap greedy politicians. The whole thing just reeked of egos and desperation, and much of that is painted all over American Hustle, which rides the hilarity and stupidity of the situation like a bat out of hell.
I mean, the thing just moves. Channeling the best of Martin Scorsese -- his love of New York "characters," his music cues, his witty situational banter -- David O. Russell delivers what's probably his funniest movie yet. There are times when American Hustle is almost too funny, which sounds like a weird thing to say, but tone is a tricky thing. When you have dark, unlikable characters doing seedy things, it's difficult to earn hard, gut-busting laughs without disrespecting the characters or their situation. American Hustle does a terrific job balancing it all, even if lengthy voiceovers early on don't really add much to the overall story. They just feed you information.
But you're hungry for it. The foursome of Christian Bale (the con artist), Amy Adams (his partner and lover), Jennifer Lawrence (his wife and thorn in his side) and Bradley Cooper (the FBI agent who sets it all up) are so good -- so filthy, stinking good -- in these roles that you just love watching them. The story may feel a bit rocky at times, and the emotions a bit over the top (I'm looking at you, scene where Amy Adams screams deliriously while on the toilet), but it's this cast that keeps you glued; keeps you asking for more. They are the film's ultimate con, with the kind of performances that take it from familiar to legendary. The ones you remember. The ones you can't stop quoting to sound cool.
In particular, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Cooper borrows some of that fast-talking neurosis from Silver Linings Playbook for his turn as an obnoxiously eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and it works. He steals scenes, especially when he's wearing the curlers. His buddy shtick with Christian Bale provides some of the film's best moments, and you could see why Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi wanted to play the same duo back in the early 1980s when Hollywood last attempted to stage a movie based on Abscam. But even if this was always a story that bet a lot on the rocky relationship between its two male stars, the ladies are the ones who bring that balance. They are their other halves.
Lawrence and Adams play women who each want what the other regrets having, and they both give it their all. Lawrence especially, who plays the con artist's bitter, hysterical wife with this crazy seductive kind of anger. Like even when she's cursing a mile a minute and throwing things, she still looks beautiful and he still wants her. (Psst, so do you.)
I dunno, maybe it's a New York thing. But this entire movie is a New York thing. It's drowning in New York attitude and style. From the way Christian Bale pronounces the word "balls" to Robert De Niro playing a wise guy, the spirit of this city -- its winners, its losers, its schemers, its dreamers -- flows throughout the veins of American Hustle like a drug you can't get enough of. Its what makes this film feel alive.
Well, that and the hair. The hair is pretty great, too.
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