You know Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress when she can steal scenes from Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Christian Bale and throw in one with Robert De Niro for good measure.
But when she’s on screen, “American Hustle” becomes the movie every director wishes he had made.
Lawrence plays Bale’s wife – a mouthy East Coast mother who isn’t afraid to spill secrets if it means she’s part of the action.
Considering he’s part of a government plot to bring down New Jersey politicians and power brokers, she’s a bit like tossing foil in a microwave oven. Explosive.
Based on the 1970s Abscam sting (“some of this actually happened,” a title card offers), “Hustle” finds Adams and Bale as small-time cons helping Cooper (an FBI agent) move in on a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), a mob boss (De Niro) and a group of congressmen. The carefully planned close encounters look like they’re going to work and then Lawrence – all nails and hair – shows up and tips the scales.
Director David O. Russell (who helped her win an Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook”) takes full advantage of her bag of tricks. She’s so good it’d be a shame if she didn’t win a second Oscar for this job. It’s that good.
Adams and Bale are superb, too. She pretends to be British royalty (with extra-plunging necklines); he’s a paunchy dry cleaning magnate with the worst comb-over ever. They’ve got a thing going, too, but Lawrence won’t have any of it.
A tunnel-vision Cooper can’t see how any of this could go awry. He just embraces what he can get out of it – and a relationship with Adams.
Russell has a weird backtracking storytelling method that jars initially, but once it gets going, “Hustle” moves better than John Travolta in a polyester leisure suit.
Thanks to some great costumes and hair design (this is the film to beat for that Oscar), Russell’s able to rekindle the era almost immediately. He scores with music, too (listen for the comment each of the songs makes) and finds hidden talents in what has become his own repertory company.
Merging the folks from “The Fighter” with the “Silver Linings” crowd was a stroke of genius. But casting Lawrence was the move that should get him a handful of Oscar nominations if not the prize itself.
“American Hustle” is an incredible film – one of the best of the year. If the similarly themed “Argo” hadn’t arrived last year, it would have had the market on 1970s stings cornered.
In its wake, it’s still great. It’s just not in a class by itself.
Lawrence, though, definitely is.