Exploring deeply conflicted characters who are on a mission to reconceive their unsatisfying circumstances is director David O. Russell’s sweet spot. From his raw 1996 film Flirting with Disaster to last year’s acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook, he effectively unravels the disarray.
The 1970s-set con artist tale American Hustle is Russell’s most audacious, entertaining jaunt yet.
Russell co-wrote the script, which loosely chronicles the Abscam scandal — an FBI investigation into the bribery of government officials that riddled New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The script heightens the ludicrous true-crime thread to an outrageously savage, comical and rapid degree. The result is a sleek revival of the 1970s, complete with oversized glasses, plaid suit jackets, plunging come-hither necklines, all set to a rapturous soundtrack.
Just about all of his characters are painstakingly obsessed with getting ahead. As a result, they cast morality and logic to the side at the expense of love, stability and a clean criminal record.
Some of the names from the real operation have been changed here, as Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale, is based on actual con artist Mel Weinberg, who was forced to conspire with the FBI to evade doing time.
Sacrificing his usual sex appeal, Bale packed on 40 pounds and hid a fake balding head with a hairpiece and a comb-over for this role. Still, his Irving charms the smart and sassy former stripper Sydney Prosser (a memorably bold Amy Adams) at a winter indoor-pool party by identifying their mutual love for Duke Ellington. Sydney, who is tired of slumming, pitches in on Irving’s crooking and assumes the perfect British blue blood persona for luring clientele into the loan scam. Before long, the two, who take turns narrating the story, fall madly in love.
But we soon find out Irving is married and stashes his lady Roselyn and her son on Long Island. His sultry and blunt companion, fiercely pronounced by Jennifer Lawrence, ensures she’s far from forgotten as she threatens to unmask Irving’s scheming if he utters the word “divorce.” The 23-year-old actress is the most irresistible part of this film, as she shifts between fiery and needy in an instant.
As Irving and Sydney’s plotting gains steam, they attract the interest of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who is thirsty for recognition and threatens to bust the couple unless they assist with his plan to nail politicians. But Richie, who lives with his mother and packs his head with rollers for that sexy curly look, falls victim to Sydney’s deceitful advances. He isn’t as clever as he thinks he is.
However, with themes of duality and skepticism running throughout, Sydney’s attraction toward Richie (who Cooper cleverly punches up in each scene), inevitably becomes real.
When the scheme to take down questionable pompadour-donning New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) goes wrong, things begin to unravel.
The film may lack grit but the stellar cast adds to its allure, helping to round out this dynamic account where reinvention offers the means to endure.