It would have been easy for director David O. Russell to have rested on the multiple Oscar nominations laurels that came with last year's "Silver Lining Playbook." He shows no sign of sitting back with his latest film, "American Hustle."
He's taken the emotional rawness central to "Playbook" and added layers of intriguing forms of seduction and corruption painted against the excessiveness that was the late '70s to create a production that's even more Oscar-worthy than "Playbook."
"American Hustle" is loosely based on Abscam, the FBI sting operation in the late '70s that resulted in arrests of several politicians. Russell shifts the focus to a low-level con man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), and his accomplice, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). After they are caught in a con by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the pair are forced to work for the government to catch crooked politicians. The plan becomes more dangerous and complicated as the agent looks for higher-profile offenders.
The hustle part is the thread of the movie but the strength comes in the way each brings so much power and life to the roles.
Jennifer Lawrence, as Rosenfeld's wild-card wife, is getting the most Oscar buzz — and it's all justified. Her performance as a passive-aggressive real-world answer to the Mad Hatter is electrifying, whether she's manipulating her husband or performing a cleaning scene to "Live and Let Die." The only negative about all of the attention is that it's overshadowing the other impressive performances, especially Adams'.
Russell strips Adams down to an emotional raw nerve to play the stripper turned con artist. She's such a chameleon at showing emotions, it's never clear when she's finally let her guard down or is just taking advantage of the situations around her. Adams is the key to making the film work, as she's the emotional, sexual and philosophical conduit connecting all the pieces.
Her two major links are to the two suitors in her life — the con man and federal agent — drawn to her like moths to a brilliant bonfire. Bale again has gone through an almost unimaginable physical transformation to play the role, from his portly girth to the comb-over so bad it wouldn't fool a blind man. His character's personal transformation is equally impressive, going from a self-assured minor con man to a hustler with a conscience.
Cooper doesn't get as much leeway with his performance, as he must play the sanest member of this troupe. But, under the smooth direction of Russell, sanity comes in all shapes and sizes.
If any one of these performances had faulted the tiniest bit, the complicated structure of the movie would have collapsed. But the actors transcend the normal bounds of acting so much that they elevate the powerful script by Russell and Eric Singer.
"American Hustle" is a reminder that it's a privilege to see work that's so masterful.
"American Hustle," rated R for language, violence, sexual content. Stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner. Directed by David O. Russell. Running time: 129 minutes. Grade: A
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.