Superb actors play their rascally roles to the hilt in 1970s caper comedy
American Hustle is a sardonically comical caper movie, a semi-picaresque period piece set among con artists, influence peddlers, political fixers, etc., in the late 1970s. Banking scams, FBI stings, Mafia politics, governmental corruption, fashion excesses, and elaborate double-crosses all have roles to play.
It’s a beguiling tale, with a nicely timed set of surprise twists laid out along the way. But what makes this one of the best films of the year is mostly a matter of superb, beautifully directed performances from a fine cast, including especially its four leading players.
The key figures here are a sleazy entrepreneur/con man (Christian Bale), a frenetically ambitious young FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), a gifted quick-change artist (Amy Adams), and the Bale character’s hilariously erratic wife (Jennifer Lawrence). A wheeler-dealer New Jersey politician (Jeremy Renner), a perpetually flabbergasted FBI official (Louis C.K.), a much-feared Mafia titan (an un-billed Robert De Niro), and the Renner character’s mock-regal wife (Elisabeth Röhm) make particularly memorable contributions as well.
Bale is especially brilliant—giving unexpected shades of emotion and intelligence to a character who at first seems merely a mild comic grotesque. Lawrence is very funny and very persuasive with a character sometimes prone to rapid, serial identity shifts. And Adams is superb with a character who seems the wisest, quickest, saddest, most versatile and alert figure in this film’s marvelously varied bunch of shape-shifting, role-playing rascals.