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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘American Hustle’ director’s finest film so far

It is loosely based on the “Abscam” sting operation of the late ’70s

American Hustle

(R)

3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

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From left, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence stars in “American Hustle.” (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

After making five moderately successful, mostly artsy movies between 1994 and 2004, director David O. Russell laid low for five years and returned with a far more commercially-friendly approach to his craft. Some might say he sold out and if that means he started making movies with wider appeal than that would be true. Russell simply recognized that being more accessible didn’t mean he necessarily had to sacrifice his art.

Russell’s last two efforts (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) were financial and critical hits that both won multiple Oscars and there is no reason to think that “American Hustle” won’t do the same thing. It is arguably Russell’s finest film to date and it lands him solidly into a sparsely populated list of A-list directors.

Co-written by Russell and Eric Singer, “American Hustle” is loosely based on the “Abscam” sting operation of the late ’70s but the word “Abscam” is never mentioned. Rather than the tired and often misleading “based on a true story,” the filmmakers open the movie with “some of this actually happened.” In addition to teasing the audience in a good way, this unique reveal lets us know we’re probably going to get a lot of barbed humor. By fictionalizing a past event, the filmmakers are also given free rein to offer up socio-politico commentary without fear of pesky fact-checkers and sticklers for details, i.e. film critics.

Irving (Christian Bale) is a balding and overweight New Yorker who owned some dry cleaning shops, dabbled in bootleg art and ran a basic con game with his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams). For a non-refundable $500 fee they would try to find lenders for people with shady business connections and/or bad credit. During one such transaction they get busted by Richie (Bradley Cooper), an undercover FBI agent with far too much ambition and a lot of loose screws.

Recognizing Irving’s unique talent (and wanting to get closer to Sydney), Richie makes them a standard offer: help the FBI land a handful of other bigger fish and they can walk. Although not thrilled, the pair goes along with the ruse but start having second thoughts when Richie decides he’d like to sidestep other con-artists entirely and rope in politicians and the mob. Even though he knows this is a really bad game plan, Irving must remain committed to the program or face jail time and the probable loss of his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adopted son.

A woman of limited intelligence and zero street smarts, the headstrong and flirtatious Rosalyn unwittingly and unknowingly becomes involved in the scam and turns what was already a dicey situation into an accident waiting to happen. It also doesn’t help that Richie is getting further drunk on power and Irving wants to keep both his wife and his girlfriend — who both know of and hate each other.

As good and often great as “American Hustle” is, there are going to be many people who — with good reason — will favorably and unfavorably compare it to “GoodFellas.” The non-linear narrative, the multiple character voice-overs, the swooping camera movement, the editing, the inclusion of period rock ‘n’ roll … all of it screams Scorsese (with some of P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” on the side). The odd thing is that “American Hustle” is a much better “Scorsese” movie than Scorsese’s own disappointing “The Wolf of Wall Street” which opens next week.

Back to the commentary thing. In the wake of “Abscam” people on both sides of the political aisle rightfully felt that the operation was irrevocably tainted because of perceived entrapment. Most of the politicians that went down weren’t looking for bribes and the same can be said for those portrayed in the film. What Russell and Singer seem to be saying is that going after street criminals — low level as they might be — is far more justified and righteous than tempting and pushing law makers into breaking the law. The filmmakers also call into question the skewed motives and unchecked latitude afforded to untouchable government monoliths like the FBI.

“American Hustle” will become an instant classic because it works on so many levels and will appeal to audiences for multiple reasons. There’s twisted humor, thick drama, multiple love triangles, sex, greed, intrigue, crime, temptation, retribution and brilliant observations of human behavior with style and attitude to burn. (Columbia)