Imagine the love child of “The Sting” and “Ocean’s Eleven” infused with the verve of the frenetic last thirty minutes of “Goodfellas” and you get the idea.
Branded with the disclaimer, “Some of this actually happened,” “American Hustle” is a fictionalized retelling of the Abscam scandal, an elaborate FBI takedown of corrupt government officials.
Christian Bale plays Irv Rosenfeld, a low level con man with a paunch and Trump-esque comb over. He makes a comfortable living, enough to support his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), their son and his mistress and partner-in-crime Sydney (Amy Adams).
His life goes sideways when Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent, threatens them with arrest unless they help him run a complicated corruption investigation involving New Jersey mayor Carmen Polito (Jeremy Renner) and other high ranking officials.
There’s a zany tone to “American Hustle.” It plays like a heightened version of real life. Perhaps it is the outrageous 1970s styles—all big hair, wide collars and flared pants—or the edgy, slightly larger-than-life performances from the top-notch cast, but the film feels one step removed from reality. Settle into “American Hustle’s” world and the darkly humorous ride is an enjoyable journey.
Bale leads the cast, but it is very much an ensemble. As the dumpy Irving he is a mass of contradictions. He’s a confidence man with a conscience; a man who feels it’s wrong to entrap politicians so soon after the public cynicism about elected officials after Watergate and Vietnam. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he’s a philanderer who is reluctant to leave Rosalyn because he wants to do the right thing for his son. He genuinely likes Carmine even though he’s about to set him up to do some real jail time.
Bale brings some real complexity to a character who could easily have been a stunt. Some actors might have relied on the weight gain and the bad hair to do the work, but Bale brings him to life and even makes you feel sorry for him.
The standout, in a smaller role, is Lawrence. Realistically she may be too young for the part, but as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” she’s perfectly cast. With a thick Long Island and perfectly lacquered lips, she plays Rosalyn as a creature of pure emotion, passionate one second, needy the next, driven by jealousy and dysfunction and one too many self-help books.
Adams, Renner and Cooper also distinguish themselves playing preposterous characters with one thing in common—they aspire to be something they are not. Everyone on display is on the hustle, looking to reinvent themselves, and that desperation is what gives the movie its dynamism.
As a backdrop Russell hits all the right period notes, particularly with the music. He uses archival music from the likes of Elton John, Electric Light Orchestra and The Bee Gees to set the mood, but instead of acting as a greatest hits collection of the Me Decade through clever editing it sounds like a soundtrack.
“American Hustle” is one of the year’s best. It’s an entertainingly audacious movie that will doubtless be compared to “The Wolf of Wall Street” because of the similarity in tone and themes, but this time around David O. Russell has almost out-Scorsese’d Scorsese.