American Hustle (R)

(l. to r.) Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from ‘American Hustle.’
(l. to r.) Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from ‘American Hustle.’
Francois Duhamel / COLUMBIA PICTURES

Movie Info

Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louie CK, Michael Peña.

Director: David O. Russell.

Screenwriters: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell.

Producers: Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Charles Roven, Richard Suckle.

A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 138 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief violence. Playing at area theaters.

Everyone in American Hustle is lying and scheming and conning and plotting: Whenever someone stops to actually tell the truth, disaster almost always follows. This is a lively, genial comedy about hucksterism as the American dream — about people doing what they want and going after what they want, and sorry if you happen to be in their way.

Director David O. Russell ( The Fighter, The Silver Linings Playbook), who co-wrote the script with Eric Warren Singer, uses the 1970s Abscam scandal, which resulted in the convictions of 19 politicians, as a very loose springboard for his own merry tale of an FBI sting operation gone wrong. The movie opens with the title card “Some of this actually happened,” letting you know from the start the film is not intended as a history lesson.

Nor should it be taken very seriously. Russell’s loosest, most playful film to date, American Hustle is an unexpectedly funny take on a serious subject, told through the eyes of five protagonists. Irving (Christian Bale) is a pot-bellied scammer with an elaborate combover who supplements his income from his laundromat by selling stolen paintings on the black market and fleecing desperate businessmen with fake investment opportunities. Sydney (Amy Adams) is his partner in crime, a shrewd businesswoman who adopts a fake British accent, passes herself off as royalty to gain their targets’ trust and uses her beauty as a sleight-of-hand distraction (every dress she owns seems designed to show off her cleavage).

Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is Irving’s unhappy wife, a shrill and demanding woman who refuses to grant him a divorce (he legally adopted her son) and is prone to setting their home on fire by accident. Richie (Bradley Cooper) is an FBI agent chasing after grandeur and fame: After he busts Irving and Sydney during one of their small-time scams, he forces them to cooperate with him and go after bigger fish or else get sent to prison. And Carmine (Jeremy Renner) is the New Jersey mayor who is trying to do the best for his constituents by turning Atlantic City into a gambling paradise. He’s not corrupt — he really is a man of the people — but he unwittingly gets snared in an increasingly complicated sting that grows to involve senators, members of the House of Representatives and, most alarmingly (and dangerously), the mob.

Russell lays out the intricacies of the covert operation cleanly and clearly, but it’s the characters, not the sting, that interest him the most. Every performance in American Hustle is one to relish: They’re the reason the movie will endure. Bale, too often cast as brooding, tortured men, is terrific as Irving, who quietly suffers his wife’s indignities, is often in a state of quiet exasperation (watch how he’s constantly fiddling with his aviator glasses) and is frightened by the way the sting operation keeps growing. He’s not a violent man, he has an aversion to danger and he’s not interested in going after big shots. He’s content feeding off little people. Adams exudes brains and sex appeal as Bale’s partner and potential soulmate: She admits she doesn’t understand why she’s attracted to him but she falls for him hard, and when he refuses to leave his wife for the sake of his son, it breaks her heart.

Cooper’s vain, hot-tempered FBI agent, who isn’t above beating up his boss (a terrific Louis CK) to get what he needs, becomes the movie’s de facto villain in a story where he should be the hero. His greed and aggressiveness are off-putting, and he’s so blinded by the potential career boost that awaits him if he pulls off the operation, he’s too distracted to realize when he, too, is being conned. Renner is sweet and earnest as the well-meaning but oblivious mayor — a likable stooge in a movie filled with sharks. And Lawrence continues to surprise as Irving’s shouty, needy wife, whose constant anger and frustration masks a deep loneliness and depression. She seems to intentionally wreak havoc just to get her husband’s attention (when he brings home a new device known as a microwave, which they call a “science oven,” he warns her not to put any metal inside; the first thing she does is pop in a dish covered in aluminum foil).

American Hustle carries a distinct Scorsese vibe, from its use of voiceover narration from multiple characters — which gives you different points of view on the same situation — to Russell’s plentiful use of period pop songs on the soundtrack (the way he conveys the quiet menace of high-ranking mobsters smacks strongly of Goodfellas). But Russell uses music differently, using certain songs in place of dialogue to convey the characters’ inner states of mind. Donna Summer’s I Feel Love conveys the uptight Richie’s much-needed loosening-up: It allows the tightly wound agent a brief respite of sheer abandon. Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is beautifully used to convey the myriad relationships among the main characters the first time they are all together, each of them playing a facade but aware of the truth. And Paul McCartney & Wings’ Live and Let Die is the soundtrack for Rosalyn’s furious payback for her husband’s adultery (and also the accompaniment for some amusingly angry bit of house cleaning).

Russell has great fun decking out his characters in garish ’70s clothes and hairdos (if there was an Oscar category for Best Hairstyling, American Hustle would be a shoo-in) and he places his camera entirely at the service of his actors, eschewing show-off style for close-ups and zooms that highlight the performances of his ensemble cast. Best of all, the movie pulls a massive con on the audience that you won’t see coming no matter how hard you look, (on second viewing, you’ll realize the film gives you loads of subtle clues). American Hustle is fizzy and intoxicating, but not in a carnivalesque, Boogie Nights-way: Russell’s films are more grounded in reality than Hollywood glitter-parties. He just knows how to make the real world feel just a little more fun and heightened than it really is.

Read more Reeling with Rene Rodriguez stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">What’s the secret?</span> Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites are a brother and sister trying to solve the mystery of a demonic mirror in ‘Oculus.’

    Oculus (R)

    Mirrors have been as much of a fixture in horror movies as knives and cats that suddenly jump from the shadows. But they’re best in cameos, as in the ending of Dressed to Kill or the bathroom scene in The Shining. Oculus revolves entirely around an ornate mirror that is, what, a gateway to hell? A summoning force for evil spirits? A really ugly piece of furniture from a medieval Pottery Barn?

Iko Uwais and Cecep Arif Rahman square off in a scene from ‘The Raid 2.’

    The Raid 2 (R)

    Every time you think The Raid 2 can’t possibly top itself, writer-director Gareth Evans goes “Oh, yeah? Watch this.” Most of 2011’s The Raid: Redemption took place inside a tenement raided by a SWAT team to apprehend a mobster and his squad of killers holed up inside. Practically no one survived the movie — the violence was astonishing — but the contained setting and the idea of having events grow hairier for the good guys the higher they went in the building gave the tight 101-minute movie a sense of compressed, relentless action. Now comes The Raid 2 (known as The Raid 2: Bernadal in its native Indonesia), which is far more expansive and complicated, and runs almost 2 ½ hours. Miraculously, the new picture makes the old one feel like Evans was just warming up.

A sexual addict (Charlotte Gainsbourg) visits a therapist (Jamie Bell) with unorthodox methods to try to help get over her compulsion in ‘Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2’

    NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 2 (unrated)

    Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (unrated)

    Things get really kinky in Nymphomaniac Vol. 2, the second chapter in director Lars von Trier’ epic-length saga about a woman who can’t get enough. If you saw Vol. 1, which ended with our perpetually horny heroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) losing all feeling in her sexual organs, you might be wondering, “How could this movie outdo the first one?” To quote the great Bachman-Turner Overdrive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category