‘American Hustle’ a superb ensemble piece

With seven Golden Globe nominations in the bag, “American Hustle” is yet more proof that writer-director David O. Russell is a proven talent. Fresh off his stellar work in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” where in these two films he guided Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo to Academy Award-winning performances, Russell has again presented memorable characters fleshed out by actors whose work will be contenders for Oscar nominations.

“American Hustle” focuses on people who are not evil but are willing to bend and break the rules to achieve their goals. Russell reunites with two of his most recent successful collaborations with Bale (“The Fighter”) and Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) in this story of schemes and corruption in the late 1970s.

Sporting a paunch and and an “elaborate comb-over” to hide a receding hairline, Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a man raised in New Jersey whose most powerful influence in life is seeing his hard-working father victimized by corrupt people in control. Although he owns a chain of legitimate dry cleaning outlets, Irving veers off to do some conning, selling fake art and setting up a loan agency that is a rip-off scheme. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who like Irving is prepared to do whatever is necessary to get ahead. The two are drawn together by a passion for Duke Ellington and a drive to gain the good life. Soon they are lovers and partners in a successful alliance of cons in which Sydney claims to have ties to a London bank and can secure loans.

This idyllic, if dishonorable, arrangement has a complication in that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Lawrence) and has adopted Rosalyn’s son from a previous relationship. The sparks have long gone out between the two but Irving is a dedicated father and Rosalyn is hesitant to file for divorce.

Then, Irving and Sydney find themselves in trouble when an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), nails them in an undercover operation. DiMaso considers Irving and Sydney as small-timers and thus forces them to work with him in taking down some bigger prospects. One of DiMaso’s targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a passionate and ambitious mayor trying to revive Atlantic City and revitalize the state’s economy. But lacking the funding, Polito is desperate, making him vulnerable to using corruption in his quest.

“American Hustle” becomes a study in relationships as the plot unfolds. Irving has his hands full with Sydney, who is smart and manipulative, and Rosalyn, a strong-willed woman who is not as dumb as Irving might assume. Irving becomes the front man in luring Polito into DiMaso’s undercover operation and finds himself in unfamiliar territory — a genuine friendship with the political figure.

Trying to pull the strings is DiMaso, a volatile character whose ambition runs into roadblocks via his supervisor and his growing passion for Sydney.

All of these characters have good and bad points and are given shining moments to perform. Adams as Sydney can be vulnerable and conniving, playing both Irving and Richie. Rosalyn is the unknown variable. Not really sure what Irving is up to but forced to go along as she and Irving masquerade as a happy couple, she has the potential to unravel everything.

DiMaso is supposed to be the good guy, but he becomes blind in his overzealous pursuits of powerful people, making him easy prey to have the tables turned on him. Renner comes the closest to being a sympathetic character — a  man with strong family values and legitimate goals in making life better for his constituents only to find himself pulled into shady dealings.

And at the core is Irving, a man accustomed to being in control but finding himself pulled in different directions, factoring in loyalty, love and just trying to survive. Just when it looks like he is down and out, he makes a nice recovery.

“American Hustle”, co-written with Russell by Eric Warren Singer, is smart and funny and draws upon the challenges in life when the lines are gray rather than black or white. Who do you root for? Aside from great performances, that is what makes it a rewarding movie experience.

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