If every edit is a lie, David O. Russell's American Hustle is pathological

Based on the ABSCAM operation of the late 70s, David O. Russell’s American Hustle follows Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), con artists and lovers enlisted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to entrap a series of known criminals and corrupt public officials through an elaborate scam involving a fictional sheik (Michael Pena). The operation, which eventually extends to include Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), threatens to come undone when Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) begins to interfere.

Featuring the best ensemble cast since Ocean’s Eleven (Ocean’s Thirteen if you want to get technical), packed with friends, family and frequent collaborators (blink and you’ll miss Dicky Eklund, subject of Russell’s 2010 biopic The Fighter who Bale won an Oscar portraying, as “Street Thug #1”), Russell’s second film of the calendar year lets loose on the glamorous criminal underworld of 70s New York. The result is lighter and less focused than his recent output, but remains engrossing thanks to a hilarious script (rewritten by Russell from an original screenplay by Eric Warren Singer) and Russell’s dedication to the characters on screen.

With a meandering plot that threatens to get away from itself at times, American Hustle manages to stay on track thanks to its captivating cast and emphasis on characters. This lack of focus feels deliberate; Bale has stated in interviews that much of the dialogue was improvised on set, with Russell insisting he was more concerned with character than plot. The resulting scenes would come across as bloated and self-indulgent if not for the mesmerizing performances, and when things do finally come together in in the film’s climax it almost feels like an accident, albeit a welcome one.

A study of the lengths to which we will go to escape a life we’re unsatisfied with, each character in American Hustle hides behind a version of themselves born from such a desire. Nothing illustrates this point more than the way the film goes out of its way to remind you that it is just that – a film. The elaborate costumes and recognizable faces that show up throughout are both immersive and jarring, and the actors are never allowed to truly disappear into their roles, caricatures of the historical figures they are based on. American Hustle argues that everyone must hustle to survive. The film is the biggest hustle of all.

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