by Matt J. Popham
A masterfully directed, expertly performed, dazzling, dizzying, and nauseating portrait of the corruption, desperation, and self-deception that fester at America’s self-hating heart, American Hustle is one of the best, funniest, and most unpleasant films of the year. Based as much on actual events as your average grift, the film is loosely inspired by the FBI’s notorious 1978 ABSCAM sting, wherein the Bureau hired an experienced con-man to help them entrap crooked politicians. David O. Russell’s grotesquely deglamorized take on Scorsese’s flashy, amphetamine aesthetic propels the story at a sleazy tumble, evoking the not-altogether-pleasing stylistic sensation of late 70’s porn being manhandled by Goodfellas. (If it’s true that bad artists imitate while great artists steal, this is where Paul Thomas Anderson failed with Boogie Nights…) The sweaty, panting pace and lurching visuals could easily become overwhelming, but Hustle’s electrifying, tragicomic cast give the film a thumping, horrifically human heart. From a troubled and unusually vulnerable Christian Bale, to a fierce and surprisingly sultry Amy Adams, from Bradley Cooper’s aggressive and erratic animal mania, to Jennifer Lawrence’s all-at-once incandescent and pathetic heartbreaking hilarity, every single actor performs a breathtaking highwire act, balancing damaged character with warped caricature, like a cast of R. Crumb cartoons made flesh. But for all its triumphs of text, texture, and technique, it’s often difficult not to feel disengaged from American Hustle’s tumultuous dramatic landscape. Given Russell’s funhouse-mirror-up-to-nature intentions, it would be a mistake for him to let us get too close, but his Brechtian strategies can make for rough, removed viewing. (This could also just be a subjective preference. Where other critics have described the film as, “fun.” “giddy,” and, “exhilarating,” for all its humor, I found it sad, ugly, and unsettling…) There is no question that American Hustle is a marvel, deserving of every accolade it receives, but it’s also a film that’s much easier to admire than to love.