In the six-year absence that followed 2004’s delirious ‘I Heart Huckabees’, David O Russell seemingly acquired a taste for studio filmmaking – but that’s not quite the same as going mainstream. ‘The Fighter’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ played as exciting experiments to see just how much of Russell’s clattering, chaotic creative sensibility could survive the Hollywood formulae of the boxing movie and romcom, respectively. A lot, it turns out, and ‘American Hustle,’ his whirling, wilful take on the con caper, is no different; with much of its sensational ensemble drawn from Russell’s two previous films, it’s a loose trilogy-capper.
‘Loose’ is the operative word throughout. ‘Some of this actually happened,’ quips an introductory title card, as the film launches into a fictionalised, digressive account of the FBI’s notorious Abscam sting of the late 1970s. The plot, in which Christian Bale’s dopey New Jersey dry-cleaner moonlighting as an art forger Irving Rosenfeld is coerced by sleazy federal agent Richie DiMaso (a poodle-permed Bradley Cooper) into a plot to bring down several high-ranking politicians, is certainly knotty enough.
But ultimately story is secondary to Russell’s delicious detailing of character and milieu. A brilliant, wordless opening scene, in which Bale applies a vole-like toupee to his bald pate with heartbreaking care, sets the tone for a film as much about personal disguises as professional ones.
It’s also a love story, oddly affecting in its cold-heartedness, between two falsely confident tricksters: Rosenfeld is alternately wooed and wound up by slippery Sydney (a fierce Amy Adams), as his garish Jersey-girl wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) watches from the sidelines. Wounded but powerfully deranged, belting out ‘Live and Let Die’ in her literally gilded suburban cage, Lawrence is entirely extraordinary here, improving on the performance that won her an Oscar for Russell’s last film. Long may this collaboration continue: in her, he’s found the ideal firestarter for his brand of lively, fraying human comedy.