American Hustle is about a pair of small time grifters who get caught up in an FBI sting modeled after Abscam, which ensnared a Senator and several Congressmen in the 1970's. The movie was well written, well plotted, and captured the late 70's perfectly, without being condescending to a decade toward which condescension is almost de rigueur. But the most striking thing about it was how good the acting is.
Amy Adams, as one of the grifters, was nothing at all like the fairy tale princess she played in Enchanted, nothing like Lois Lane, nothing like boxer Micky Ward's lower middle class girlfriend. Here she went from frustrated to (fake) elegant to ecstatic to scared to manipulative to desperate to angry to bitter to adoring, and she was convincing throughout.
Christian Bale played the other small time grifter. He has been heroic in 3:10 to Yuma, Batman Begins, and Terminator Salvation. He's been glossily evil in American Psycho, pathetically addicted in The Fighter, and tortured in The Machinist. In American Hustle he was nebbishy and sleazy and brilliant, all at the same time.
Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic in a role that called for her to be aggressively, passionately stupid. She is an absolutely fearless actress, and plays raw like no one else. Judging from her recent public comments, playing stupid may not be a stretch, but she still puts it all on the screen with great courage.
In the last two decades Robert Deniro has been reduced to a mockery of a shell of his former self. But he was downright scary as a Mafia chief here, and exuded a hardness that was a reminder of how great he used to be.
Jeremy Renner has played tough in The Town, stoic in The Bourne Legacy, and fearless in The Hurt Locker. Here he was great as the expansive New Jersey politician who gets caught up in the bribery scandal for mostly noble reasons.
Louie CK was believable as the put-upon mid-level FBI manager who must navigate between an ambitious underling and an ambitious boss.
Bradley Cooper was good as the ambitious underling. He seems somewhat overrated as an actor -- somehow, in every role, he's always recognizably Bradley Cooper, trying gamely to portray every emotion he's supposed to -- but he's still good.
There seems to be an almost direct inverse correlation between acting ability and vanity. Note how Angelina Jolie (at least since 2000, when she was excellent in Girl, Interrupted) has concentrated on playing glamorous. She is never photographed in light less than flattering and never has a hair out of place. And as a result, her roles have been limited to, cool heroine.
The actors of American Hustle on the other hand, exhibit no such vanity. Smeared makeup, black eyes, ridiculous hairstyles, fat, and baldness are all on ample display, along with the great acting.