It's almost too good to be true: a bunch of major movie stars (among them Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louie C.K. and others...), dressed up in insane '70s clothing, in a movie that often feels like a period version of "Ocean's Eleven."
But yet, here we are, reviewing "American Hustle," the new film from "Silver Linings Playbook" director David O. Russell. Based in part on an actual FBI sting operation, it features cops and criminals and the grey area in between, with an emphasis on memorable characters and identifiable situations as opposed to, well, a bunch of criminal underworld type stuff that no one would really care about.
Of course, given the glut of incredible movies mobbing the multiplexes this Christmas, is "American Hustle" worth your hard-earned dough? Should you hustle to see this movie? These are the groovy questions at hand, and the ones I'll hopefully answer here (plus much, much more).
1. There's Tons of Ridiculous Hair
In the opening moments of "American Hustle" -- and this isn't a spoiler at all -- we see Christian Bale's character, a low level criminal named Irving Rosenfeld, as he configures his hair into an elaborate comb over that also appears to include some kind of toupee. And yet, somehow, Bale's 'do is one of the least ridiculous hairstyles in "American Hustle," which also includes Amy Adam's feathery locks; Jeremy Renner's wild pompadour; Bradley Cooper's tiny, tightly coiled curls; and whatever the heck is going on with Shea Whigham's hair, which makes him look more than a little like some kind of recently resurrected sea creature. Nobody is going to be copying any of these big-screen "looks," I can assure you.
2. The Soundtrack Is Killer
There's obviously a lot of amazing source music in "American Hustle." Any movie set in the '70s is going to have some killer tunes (there's a particularly great sequence where Cooper and Adams dance to Donna Summer's immortal "I Feel Love," and another great sequence based around a Bond song). But what makes "American Hustle" even more special is that Jeff Lynne, the creative genius behind Electric Light Orchestra (amongst other musical projects), got wind of the project and volunteered some rare and never-before-heard ELO tracks to the movie. That makes the soundtrack kind of unstoppable, in a singularly awesome way.
3. It's One of the Year's Best Movies...
Unquestionably, "American Hustle" is one of the year's very best movies, a virtuoso accomplishment by a filmmaker and cast all working at the very top of their game. There are moments from "American Hustle" (too good to spoil here) and lines of dialogue that just keep cropping up in my mind, a whole week after I first saw it. There are movies that I can barely write about afterwards because all memory of their existence has vanished from my mind. "American Hustle" is the opposite; you can't stop thinking about it.
4. ...But Still Not Quite as Good as 'Wolf of Wall Street'
Still, when push comes to shove, it's just not as dazzling as Martin Scorsese's eagerly awaited (and similarly themed) "Wolf of Wall Street." Of course, that movie has a much bigger budget and has been tinkered with endlessly, whereas "American Hustle" was slapped together in less than a year (more on that in a minute). But it's hard not to compare the two period-specific crime movies released at the end of 2013. It's nearly impossible!
5. David O. Russell Continues His Winning Streak
After "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," it seemed like director David O. Russell was poised for some kind of stumble. How long could this winning streak possibly go on? Well, it turns out, just a little longer. Much of what makes "American Hustle" so amazing has to do with him -- his impeccable casting, the nimble, floaty camerawork that he has developed over these past few movies, the slightly improvisational style -- that it's hard to think of any director trying on the same material and getting a better result. It also feels like a big reunion of sorts for the David O. Russell players, with Bale and Adams (from "The Fighter"), and Cooper and Lawrence (from "Silver Linings Playbook") all coming together. Russell has talked about this being the third part of a trilogy that began with "The Fighter"; it certainly feels like a fitting conclusion.
6.) You Can Sort of Tell How Quickly It Was Put Together
Do the math in your head: "Silver Linings Playbook" was a major awards contender earlier this year, meaning the back part of 2012 and early into 2013, which meant that not only was David O. Russell occupied by the so-called "awards circuit," but so were "American Hustle" stars Jennifer Lawrence (who won an Oscar) and Bradley Cooper. So, we're talking about less than a year from the start of production until release date, and it wasn't exactly an easy shoot, with production delayed due to the Boston bombing (not to mention Russell's time intensive, somewhat improvisational style). With those kinds of time constraints, it's not hard to see why the movie feels a little shaggy; like it was the first cut by Russell and his editors (there are three credited). This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does feel rushed. There are some weird dubbing issues, and some instances where scenes don't align properly. But hey -- let's see you put together a movie this complicated in such a short amount of time.
7. Jennifer Lawrence Is a Knockout
The cast of "American Hustle" is basically unparalleled, but Jennifer Lawrence, who started off the year winning an Oscar for Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" and saw major box office success with "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," is easily the film's MVP. She plays Bale's psychologically unwell wife, and every scene she's in crackles and pops. She gets some of the best dialogue and brings a volatile magic to every word. Quite frankly, it's a performance that should be nominated for another Academy Award. The year of J-Law continues. And I couldn't be happier.
8. It's Based on a True Story (Sort Of)
At one point, one of the characters mentions Abscam, which was the FBI's sting operation that ran from the late '70s to the early '80s. The codename was a combination of "Arab scam," since the operation involved a fictional Middle Eastern sheik. The operation led to 33 convictions, many of them high-ranking politicians, as it moved from focusing on criminal operations to public corruption. Of course, very little of this is gone into during the course of "American Hustle." Russell is more interested in the characters (and so are we), and supposedly one of the major things Russell did when he came on board the project was gut all of the historical minutia from Eric Warren Singer's original draft. It's for the better. You can look up the particulars of Abscam online; it's not nearly as engaging as "American Hustle."
9. There's a Great Cameo
Sadly, we can't give it away here. Still: it's an actor who gives a lot of oomph to the movie's connection with the history of the crime drama and some of the films it's quite obviously modeled on.
10. It's Just So Much Fun
If I haven't made it clear at this point, "American Hustle" is so, so, so much fun. Even with a two hour and 15 minute runtime, it almost feels a little too short. Like, if there were several more wacky "American Hustle" hours, you wouldn't mind at all.
"American Hustle" is playing in select cities now and opens nationwide Friday, December 20.