Time for full disclosure: American Hustle is my first David O. Russell film. I’ve never seen Three Kings, The Fighter, or Silver Linings Playbook. I read years ago that George Clooney had gotten into an altercation with Russell on the set of Three Kings. Then there was something about Lily Tomlin and him getting into a fight on the set of I Heart Huckabees, and footage leaking online. I always imagined David O. Russell would become a strange kind of fringe filmmaker that made quirky little movies that never got much attention. Then, strangely, he and his favored troupe of actors started winning Academy Awards and raking in box office bucks.

I tell you this simply to say I don’t know whether the things I liked (or disliked) about American Hustle are “Russell trademarks.” I got the impression (falsely, maybe. I’ll let you know) that Silver Linings Playbook was little more than formulaic Oscar-bait anchored by a stronger-than-expected performance from Jennifer Lawrence; her Best Actress win driven significantly by the universal goodwill she generates (and deserves). I don’t know if the overlapping narration from different characters from different points of view is something he normally does, or aped from Goodfellas. That is to say, ultimately, I may not be the best authority.

Having said all that, I really liked American Hustle. Its 1970s setting is not particularly romantic; all sweat, polyester, and discreet cocaine, its cops and criminals not particularly glamorous or lionized. If anything, it feels—with a retro Columbia Pictures logo opening the whole thing up—like a grimy tale from another time, a recently unearthed offering from the New Hollywood era.

Recently (and curiously) more heavily marketed as a comedy, American Hustle has its funny moments, but can’t be characterized as a riotous romp. Fictionalizing the Justice Department’s ABSCAM operation, Bradley Cooper plays a hotheaded agent too interested in getting ahead, no matter the cost. He finds (or catches) unwilling allies in con artists Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who share one of the sweetest, most genuine love affairs I’ve seen onscreen in a while. Weaving dense webs of lies around themselves and each other, the tension slowly builds as a goodhearted New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) gets caught in their schemes, as does the mob, Cooper’s hapless boss (Louis C.K.), and Bale’s unpredictable firecracker of a wife (Jennifer Lawrence).

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Though there are strong performances all around, American Hustle belongs to Christian Bale. The quintessential chameleon actor of our age (other than Daniel Day Lewis, maybe) the handsome, English Bale disappears into a balding, overweight, middle-aged Bronx tough guy who knows his away around, but knows when to keep his head down. Longing for her own kind of reinvention, Amy Adams’ character weaves in and out of lies (or does she?) not out of malice, but out of survival. These two characters aren’t desperate; they aren’t opportunists, they’re simply alive. Cooper uses his good looks and charisma to create the worst kind of smarm—worse, even, than the criminals he’s looking to catch—and Jennifer Lawrence is dangerously electric.

9.0

  • Full of great performances, with Christian Bale a solid anchor
  • Assuredly clever and mature; a movie for grownups
  • Packaged to impress
  • Somewhat predictable

If anything bad can be said of American Hustle, is that it might be a little too Hollywood-friendly. It’s methodically meant to be a crowd-pleaser, more interested than telling a neat little story and impressing modern moviegoers than challenging their intellect or making a statement. But that’s hardly a complaint. It’s a different kind of product—again, a throwback—more interested in creating real moments that seemingly just happen to be in a movie. Before robots and superheroes ruled escapist fare, burnt and crackled film told stories like American Hustle, and it’s good to see something like that again.

American Hustle, an Annapurna Pictures production distributed by Columbia Pictures, is 138 minutes long and rated R.