Posted January 5, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2013

American Hustle: A Must-See

By Mona Gerber Milbrodt

Although she would have been barely past toddlerhood in 1978, Amy Adams wears those iconic big-ass hair rollers held fast by oversize metal bobby pin clips as if she had really lived in the post-Watergate, disco era of American Hustle.

Director David Russell’s latest film, released by Columbia Pictures, is an American crime comedy-drama he co-wrote with Eric Singer (The International, Damascus Gate). It uses the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s and early ’80s as backdrop for fascinating character interpretations.

An engaging storyteller who knows the value of a stellar cast, Russell shows his obvious faith in Adams and other performers from his past films (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter, I ♥ Huckabees), which pays off in spades – with one key exception.

In American Hustle, we are treated to a near master class in acting, stunningly led by Christian Bale and Adams, who sidestep the fog of sentimentality and are a pleasure to observe from the opening scene (wherein Bale masters a skillfully repugnant comb-over) to the closing.

The year is 1978, and small-time businessman and con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) meets stripper Sydney Prosser (Adams) at a party, and the two soon become lovers. Sydney, who is smart, quick on the uptake, and desperate to reinvent herself, becomes Irving’s equal partner in attracting investors for a new con.

They initially find great success, but are caught in the act by undercover FBI agent Richard “Richie” DiMaso, disappointingly played by Bradley Cooper, who is completely out of his league among some of this year’s top performances, which also include Jeremy Renner as the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and the incomparable Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s gorgeous and unstable wife, Rosalyn.

Fans of Boardwalk Empire will be thrilled to see another Russell go-to guy, Shea Whigham (Silver Linings) in a small but pivotal role, and the charismatic Jack Huston (no sign of the gravel-voiced Richard Harrow), playing a dashing young mobster. If that’s not enough, we are treated to an ominous, gold-standard cameo by Robert DeNiro, and a self-conscious but competent stint by Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine) as Richie’s long-suffering boss.

Whether it was the Mike Brady/PL Travers perm that did it, or his character’s general lack of magnetism, Cooper’s Richie was out of sync enough to keep me wondering about a better actor (such as Al Pacino, as he was back in 1978) for this role. He just never quite convinces. The character’s ambition, self-absorption (self-delusion) and bulldozer tactics could have been handled with a certain degree of animal magnetism and even pathos, but Cooper misses the mark. What is accomplished well is the authenticity created by Russell and his collaborators. The realism of the sets (Judy Becker), soundtrack (Susan Jacobs), hair (Kathrine Gordon) and wardrobe (Michael Wilkinson), the overall caliber of acting by the ensemble cast, and Russell’s masterful vision make American Hustle a must-see film this season.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.