David O. Russell’s American Hustle is a fractured fairy tale of cons and corruption, starting with the epigraph, “Some of this actually happened.” What did actually happen was the Abscam scandal (short for “Arab scam”) of 1979-1980, in which the FBI used small-time con artists to bribe public officials. Not one to settle for mere facts, Russell invents and embellishes with equal jolts of energy and hairspray. American Hustle one-ups the wild characters and fast dialogue of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. It’s the most fun I’ve had at the movies this season.
Russell brings back four actors from his previous two movies, and all are dynamic. Take Bradley Cooper’s nervous energy, heightened to a new level of manic; take Jennifer Lawrence, revealing a saucy screwball side. Or Christian Bale, an actor of many disguises, somehow sympathetic under that ridiculous combover. My personal favorite is Amy Adams, who seldom gets to be so sexual and grown-up. Despite her calculating exterior, Adams is off-beat, on edge, desperate. Her accent comes and goes, in character. We’re not always sure who’s conning whom; the movie stays a step ahead, teasing us, playing hard to get.
Martin Scorsese set the mold for movies like American Hustle. His latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, occupies the same overtly masculine world he’s studied before, from Mean Streets through The Departed. What fascinates about Wolf is its hyper-focus on Jordan Belfort, a nineties stockbroker running his own kind of con. Belfort’s crimes were huge, his arrest trivial, and his rebirth as a motivational speaker disgusting and expected. What else does our country do but reward bad behavior? Terence Winter’s script doesn’t moralize or try to make us feel guilty for the excess we’re subjected to. Are we even subjected? Aren’t we having a good time?
Scorsese’s still in the game. But with little perspective outside Jordan Belfort, monotony sets in. We know where Belfort’s crimes lead; we know he’ll survive. The only tension here is How Much More Can There Be? Leonardo DiCaprio, who capably carries the movie on his shoulders, revisits some old tricks and makes them work this time: the customary disingenuous smile, the over-emphasized dialect. DiCaprio is shrewd while slimy and frattish. And he reveals a new talent for physical humor; is this the first comedy he’s ever made? He’s helped by Winter’s sharply funny script: Matthew McConaughey sells a hilarious first-day pep talk, and there’s that meeting where the officers plan a midget tossing. This is a movie large boxes of popcorn were made for. Sit back, let Scorsese wow you, don’t ask where those three hours went.
For Your Consideration:
American Hustle: Best Picture; Director (David O. Russell); Amy Adams and her three co-stars; Screenplay (Eric Singer, David O. Russell).
The Wolf of Wall Street: Best Director (Martin Scorsese); Leonardo DiCaprio.