The 400-Word Review: American Hustle
By Sean Collier
December 24, 2013

Have you ever gotten a manicure this good? I think not!

Part of the central absurdity in American Hustle, David O. Russell’s fictionalized account of the FBI’s already wacky ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s, is in the film’s obsessive devotion to the look and style of that decade.

The characters are lovingly clothed in the absurdist outposts of period fashion, from the tiny curlers in Bradley Cooper’s hair to the ruffled shirts meant to conceal Christian Bale’s working-class beer gut. The furniture, the makeup, the decor — all are rendered as lovingly as the museum pieces in a 19th-century romance, in all their tacky glory.

Fortunately, our cast can keep up with the clothes. Bale stars as a Irving Rosenfeld, small-time conman who gets in hot water with the feds when his schemes with faux-accented mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) get a little elaborate. Rather than throw the pair in jail, over-eager newbie FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) enlists them to expose the corruption permeating various levels of public service, centering on the earnest mayor of Camden, N.J. (Jeremy Renner).

Meanwhile, DiMaso’s boss (Louis C.K.) is annoyed by the whole business, Rosenfeld’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence, in the best performance of her career to date) wants attention and excitement, and a notorious mob boss — the actor is uncredited and left out of the marketing, but you can probably get it right on the first guess — is flying in from Florida for a cut of the action.

Russell knows that allowing that list of performers to pinball off of one another is entertainment enough, and is frequently happy to allow them to proceed unfettered. His screenplay (co-written with Eric Warren Singer) lays procedural beats onto an easy farce; he’s cribbing notes from television drama to great effect, knowing that an easy, familiar format will move the story along while his performers can go to town.

There’s some subtle commentary floating below the surface about abuses of power and Machiavellian politics; fundamentally, DiMaso’s operation is about scoring headlines rather than doing right by the world, and one gets the sense that New Jersey would’ve been a better place if this particular round of backroom deals hadn’t been meddled with. (Whether or not that’s to be seen as Russell’s take on the real-world story is up to the viewer.) Even without that layer, though, American Hustle is a brilliant piece of actor-focused filmmaking, and easily among the year’s best pictures.

My Rating: 10/10
Overall Rating on 91/100 (Seal of Approval Recipient)

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at