Ensemble, soundtrack strengthen “American Hustle’s” game

The creative metamorphosis of director David O. Russell is nothing short of revelatory; after a mild stream of success with films such as “Three Kings” and the critically snubbed but publicly lauded “I Heart Huckabees,” Russell took a near seven-year hiatus. He returned in 2010 with a prolific fervor and unmatched star power to deliver the character-driven comedy dramas like “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” These films can now be officially declared an astounding warmup, because with “American Hustle,” he has reached the top of his game.

Using the true-life events of the 1970s ABSCAN scandal (in which the federal government enlisted the aid of con artists to help them entrap politicians) as merely a pushing-off point, the film dishes up complex themes of deception, love and disappointment. While not as cohesive a narrative as his previous films, “American Hustle” displays the efforts of a filmmaker comfortable with his cast and not afraid to play loosely with a script if it means focusing on character. And that’s just what “American Hustle” is: a bold, bittersweet exploration of character that starts from the feet up. It’s a cinematic dissertation on the types of characters who define not just a period in time, but a lost cultural era. The types of people who will do anything to live the American dream. To put it simply, the types who are always interesting to watch.

What must be praised most are the actors who bring these characters to life. “Hustle” boasts an ensemble cast of actors and actresses in their own respective primes, making what could be caricatures of big hair and fur coats feel like flesh and blood. At the center are Christian Bale and Amy Adams, whose performances as the swindling swingers Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser are deeply layered and intricately nuanced. Bradley Cooper finds a desperate intensity in the ambitious federal agent and mama’s boy Richie DiMaso, forever crushing any lingering doubts that he can’t be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. Jeremy Renner plays the gullible mayor with a heart of gold with such ferocious earnestness that seeing him conned would be tragic — if only the way they do it wasn’t so much fun. All of these performances, complemented by Rosenfeld’s scene-stealing wife (Jennifer Lawrence), who shows why divorce can be a very healthy option, round out “American Hustle” as the best-acted film of 2013.

If there is room for improvement, it’s in the story. While Russell’s constantly roving camera lovingly captures the feel of 1979 and the characters’ search for identity within it, the logic of what is happening gets a little muddled. The pacing of the film’s beginning might lag too much for some, and the sudden wheeling and dealing among various parties might move too quickly for others. Nothing in the narrative comes off as overtly forced, but the style of the film is self-conscious and glitzy. At times it feels like a borderline soap opera, but is redeemed by expert craftsmanship that only Russell could pull off.

“American Hustle” isn’t a film geared toward straightforward storytelling. It’s a study of character defined by colliding moments, projecting everyone involved through painful downfalls and touching redemptions. It’s a multifaceted portrait of honesty and the lies that we tell everyone, including ourselves.

The only better assemblage in the film than the cast is the soundtrack. “10538 Overture” by Electric Light Orchestra provides the unofficial theme song for lives on the edge of chaos. “Long Black Road” by Jeff Lynne is used as the rhythm for constructing the perfect con. Other track choices play best in the way they bring insight to the characters and their motivations, like the way the hypnotic tones of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” bring the perfect atmosphere to a scene at a disco that catalyzes the intense love triangle between Bale, Adams and Cooper.

While the facts of the story might be hard to recall even after repeated viewings, the liveliness of the characters and the actors portraying them will undoubtedly stay with you.