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Film Review: 'American Hustle' is a pitch-perfect distillation of the '70s

Great cast keeps comic 'Hustle' moving.

December 13, 2013|By Andy Klein

Writer/director David O. Russell has a knack for preserving his very offbeat voice, even in his higher-budget Hollywood endeavors. This is a guy whose first film, “Spanking the Monkey” (1994), was a sort-of-comedy about mother/son incest, not really the most obvious ticket to studio employment. Since then, he's done six features; all but one (2010's “The Fighter”) are comedies at heart, even when they're about topics like Desert Storm (“Three Kings”) or the meaning of existence (“I Heart Huckabees”).

“American Hustle” is no exception. Russell and his writers have put together a fictionalized, largely comic version of Abscam, the '70s FBI sting that landed a senator and several congressmen in jail. (The designation “Abscam” is only heard once in the film, more than halfway in.)

Our gateway to the story is a dual voice-over, alternating between Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his business partner/paramour Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Together they run a profitable con: Desperate loan-hungry marks pay them $5,000 each for access to alleged European banking connections. Access, of course, is not quite the same as a guarantee; the victims have no recourse when the loan never materializes (which is always the case).

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After the pair finally slips up, their only way to avoid jail is to help FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) nail gangsters — and eventually politicians — through a bogus casino development deal. But Richie is gaga over Syd and starts to go native, thinking more like a hustler than a cop. Still living with his vaguely grotesque mother, he gets hooked on the action, bringing a new manic temperament to his work and repeatedly conning his boss (a perfect Louis C.K.). This already teetering balance of personalities is further threatened both by the mostly honest nature of the politician they target (Jeremy Renner) and by the manipulations of Irv's estranged wife (Jennifer Lawrence), a whack job who could really use lithium or something.

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