Terrific performances and sensational production design make up for a sluggish pace in David O. Russell's eagerly anticipated follow-up to "Silver Linings Playbook." Loosely based on a real-life FBI sting operation of the late 1970s/early 1980s, "American Hustle" resembles what would happen if you put "GoodFellas" and "Boogie Nights" into a blender and hit "puree."
Christian Bale does some of his best acting yet as Irving Rosenfeld, a Bronx-born petty con man who ekes out a living as the proprietor of a few mom-and-pop dry cleaners, whilst moonlighting as a dealer of art fakes. Clearly, Irving's not the most upright citizen to begin with. His world, however, is turned upside down when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a fetching young thing who is drawn to Irving's confidence and machismo. She doesn't seem to care that he has a bit of a loose moral compass, and, in fact, partners up with him (complete with a fake British persona). The two then begin a small-time swindling operation.
Soon enough, the feds are on to them, in the person of one Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso, as played by Cooper, left me exhausted! He talks like a machine gun, and his almost manic energy is enough to carry ten movies. In any case, DiMaso offers Irving and Sydney a deal: Assist the FBI in exposing political corruption surrounding the rebuilding of Atlantic City into a gambling mecca and go free, or jail. Well, we wouldn't have much of a movie if they went to jail, so they decide to play ball. But who's playing whom?
"American Hustle" is, first and foremost, about the performances, which always seems to be the case in a David O. Russell movie. All five leads are superb: Cooper in his frenzied state; Adams, at once damsel and vixen; Jeremy Renner as a local politician and generally good guy who makes one fatally unfortunate choice; Jennifer Lawrence, all blowsy and animated as Irving's drunk of a wife; and Bale standing out as Irving. Ever the method actor, Bale looks like a completely different person than he did as The Dark Knight (though he still looks pretty damn good), having gained almost 40 pounds to portray Irving. He lets the belly hang out and the comb over fly as he desperately tries to retain some dignity in the presence of all the surrounding thugs. All of the actors play off each other well -- so much so that the movie has a slightly improvised feel to it. It's one of those movies where it's fun to just watch the actors play. Like I said, it's all about the performances.
Russell and Eric Singer's screenplay is snappy and smart, as you'd expect. The soundtrack rocks, comprised largely of era-appropriate tunes from the likes of America, Elton John, Chicago and Donna Summer. Costumes, art direction and set decoration are all suitably groovy for the time period. The snazziest wink to movie buffs in the audience, however, might be the '70s-era Columbia Pictures logo at the beginning of the film. Nice touch, Sony!
And yet, the movie feels long; it runs a bit over two hours, but seems more like two and a half. I suspect that the editing could have been tightened up a bit and some of the sequences would have been just fine without the time-sapping slo-mo. The story is interesting enough, but it's a testament to the actors and Mr. Russell that the movie is as entertaining as it is. In the hands of a lesser director and a less pro cast, "American Hustle" would have been a real drag, man.