Review: American Hustle (F for Friggin Awesome)

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Standing in front of a Rembrandt, con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) explains to FBI agent Richie DiMasso (Bradley Cooper) the painting’s a fake. Irving’s mantra is “everyone believes what they want to believe” and it’s the clearest truth life’s ever provided. Saying the Rembrandt’s a fake is a way of letting this G-man in on a secret. Is it true? We don’t know, but we do know DiMasso wants to learn how to con and now he “spotted a fake” he’s putty in a conman’s hands.

The most exciting thing about David O. Russell’s operatic-comedy American Hustle is how every piece of it double plays us. He cues you to look for the game with introductory text reading: “Some of this really happened.” The lies go down easy and the facts are unbelievable: When DeNiro does a quick cameo as a famous mobster (reportedly based on a composite of criminals) he stuns everyone by speaking Arabic. Apparently this preposterous detail is historically accurate. (What is common sense?) Ironically our inability to tell fact from fiction isn’t the point of the movie; it makes everyone including the audience go a little batty but in the big picture American Hustle, like most of Russell’s films, wants to figure out what bodies do when they’re forced out of orbit. When med students take forced hiatuses or adults learn they were adopted, their first moment after falling off the rails isn't liberation, it's insanity and boy is Russell a fan.

Irving’s partner in crime (and romance) is “Sydney Prosser” (Amy Adams), a New Mexico transplant and ex-stripper who assumes a British accent to talk “bad men” into taking out worse loans. Her dream is “to be anyone else.” One look at Irving’s “elaborate” comb-over and you can see why the two gel. DiMasso’s embarrassing perm is a more ostentatious example of trying to be someone else--someone perm-ier. Rallying their chutzpa to leave the working classes looks herculean and heroic so when DiMasso pushes them into a corner he's as flagrant as he is dangerous—the 70s establishment crooks were the most vainglorious. DiMasso wants to embroil politicians into a con—the bigger the bust the bigger the promotion)—and to do it he concocts the most deranged coercion you’ve seen this side of an Abel Ferrara movie. These cons aren’t crooks, they’re strategists with limited options and what they do to get big is a capitalist bedtime story.

Levelheaded Louis CK is the FBI supervisor DiMasso likes to beat; his quiet paternity is precisely (and hilariously) the cause of DiMasso’s rebellion. Jeremy Renner is the most generous politician Jersey ever had—your heart breaks for him. But special props go to Jennifer Lawrence as the patron saint of passive aggression. She steals the show as Irving’s ignored wife, a deranged spitfire who does to Irving what Irving does to “bad men." It’s clear why everyone needs each other and also clear why this Hustle is uniquely American: everyone wants to be a star. Isn’t that what America’s all about? The one you can’t forget always wins the history sweepstakes.

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