I think American Hustle is a fine name for David O. Russell’s latest film, but I prefer the title printed across the front page of the script he agreed to direct: American Bullshit. That has less to do with a juvenile excitement over a dirty word in the title (although, let’s face it, that’s surely part of it) than a conviction that American Bullshit, unworkable for posters and television commercials, is a more accurate description of what the film depicts. There are actual hustles afoot, to be sure, but the prevailing deceptions are generally less calculated, desperate stabs at personal reinvention. The characters cling to to their own deceptions even as they’re in the midst of making the myths. FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), for example, isn’t really hustling anyone while he positions himself as a paragon of crime-fighting virtue–he’d be hustling himself as much as anyone–but he’s got got Grade A bullshit coming out of his ears.
Spun from the Abscam scandal hatched in the late nineteen-seventies, American Hustle depicts small-scale con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) as their modest scams lead to escalating entanglements on behalf of Richie’s operation within the FBI, all in the name of bringing down the biggest targets possible. The screenplay, a Black List honoree written by Eric Warren Singer reworked by Russell, is dense with information without ever becoming a schematic slog through the mechanics of the traps, deceptions, and double-crosses. This is partially because Russell constructs the film with a light, lively pace, and also due to his commitment to let the characters carry the story. It’s less important to know precisely what’s going on when the impact on the individuals moving through the plot turns is what delivers the emotion of the piece. Whether it’s Irving, Sydney, Richie, Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), or any number of smaller characters swirling around the edges of the story, Russell expertly focuses on how each of them is rattled, angered, or enlivened by the all the shady doings. To that end, Russell depends on his sterling actors, most of them giving performances that rank with their very best.
And the actor who rises above the already highly elevated rest is Adams, delivering a performance of endless invention that is simultaneously completely grounded in strong, relatable emotion. Sydney is the character who’s arguably deepest into her own fictions, reveling in the freedom from herself and commensuate power afforded by playing Lady Edith Greensly. Adams reveals both the picaresque appeal of the role and the shakiness of the facade, down to an artfully wavering accent. The practically indiscernible entwining of risk and reward that is the crux of the film’s thesis is entirely embodied in her performance. Plentiful liberties were taken with the true life story, but Adams acting–as is the rest of the film–offers a pointed assertion in the value of playing loose with the facts. Sometimes it leads to a work that feels truer than true.