David O. Russell's 'American Hustle' delivers a giddy caper elevated by memorable performances
Scored to a K-Tel double-album-full of greatest hits from earlier in the Me Decade (these people aren't on the cutting edge, musically or otherwise), American Hustle is a giddy tale of Horatio Alger-style all-American gumption headed toward a train wreck. Russell's filmmaking is at a peak of populist confidence it would have been hard to imagine before 2010's The Fighter, and the casting is perfect down to the smallest roles. But beyond all clever plotting, amusing period trappings, and general high energy, the film's ace is its four leads, who ingeniously juggle the caricatured surfaces and pathetic depths of self-identified "winners" primarily driven by profound insecurity.
Our first view of Irving (or anything) is a camera spin around his ample middle-aged gut and up to the gaping bald spot he's in the process of concealing. Bale retains his handsome features, but the physical transformation he's undertaken here extends to a schlemiel-in-camouflage slouch whose roots you can feel in Irving's very thought processes. More recognizable despite his curly locks and disco shirts is Cooper, who after this and Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2012) has clearly found his niche: playing control-freak rageaholism for manic comedy.
Lawrence's Judy Holliday-meets-Valerie Perrine turn has justly been praised enough elsewhere. She's spectacular, but the stealth heart of the movie belongs to Adams in a role that might easily have been played as merely "hot." Sydney is brighter and more coolly rational than those around her; but life has taught her that a girl's best bet is to look good and make the man think he's doing the thinking for both of them.
Adams is a natural comedian, yet here she's also the presence onscreen most alert to everything that's going on, making Sydney the most thoughtful character and hers the most subtle performance. Without her, American Hustle would be great fun but a little hollow. With her, it almost seems genius, as if Preston Sturges had remade 1997's Donnie Brascoe.
Big fantasy films have grown repetitious, yet they grow ever longer despite the fact that short-attention-span cinema really, really benefits from reining in the runtime. Prestige movies, too, seem to be under some sort of pressure to streeeeetch it out. Would Captain Phillips, The Butler, or even (sue me) Blue is the Warmest Color have been better with a tighter length and focus? Of course they would. But the sheer bulk seems to confer importance, like those literary magnum opuses each year that command attention not because they're an author's best, but because they weigh as if they ought to be. *
AMERICAN HUSTLE opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.