The great Groucho Marx once said, “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” The witty bastard would have loved American Hustle.
Directed by David O. Russell, who’s long specialized in hyperbolic historical tales focused on outré characters (see: Three Kings, The Fighter), this giddily madcap caper flick is loosely based on Abscam, an FBI sting operation in the late 1970s and early 1980s wherein the feds tasked Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist, with bringing down a gaggle of U.S. congressmen. The agency cooked up an elaborate ruse: they set up a front company, Abdul Enterprises, Ltd. (“Abscam” is a contraction of “Abdul scam”), and had FBI agents pose as Karim Abdul Rahman—a wealthy sheikh from Abu Dhabi who sought political asylum in the U.S. with the aim of investing in a luxury hotel-casino in Atlantic City.
“Some of this actually happened,” a title card reads before the film. Indeed, many of the names have been changed—as well as the character’s ages, nationalities, and peccadilloes—but the song remains the same. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) runs a few legitimate businesses, including a string of laundromats in New York City, but the bulk of his income comes from various confidence scams, from selling forged art to doling out bogus loans. With his hideous comb-over, protruding gut, garish jewelry, and polyester suits, Irving definitely looks the part—as does Bale, who put on a whopping 40 pounds to play the grifter. Russell has even come to nicknaming Irving “The Badger.” Joining Irving in his schemes is his mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, radiant)—an ex-stripper with a penchant for chest-baring dresses who poses as London aristocrat Lady Edith Greensly.
Bale and Adams, who last crossed paths on the mean streets of Boston in Russell’s The Fighter, bond over the music of Duke Ellington, and fall madly in love. “Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually in the pool of desperation,” she says.
But Irving is living a double—nay, triple—life. He’s got a house back home in Long Island with a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and her son whom he’s adopted. Like Lawrence's quasi-Goth firebrand in Russell’s previous effort, Silver Lining’s Playbook, Rosalyn is terribly self-destructive. If you tell her not to do it, like putting metal in a brand new microwave, she’ll do it out of spite. At the same time, you feel for Rosalyn because she’s been cruelly neglected by Irving for so long. Sporting gigantic blond hair, thick red lipstick, and attitude to spare, Rosalyn is like a Real Housewife of Long Island on coke—a hyena in a library—and as such, Lawrence steals every scene she’s in.
“We fight and we fuck and that’s what we do … that’s our thing!” she screams at Irving.
Irving is, nonetheless, an ace conman—that is, until he’s nabbed by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, great perm), a hotshot FBI agent who catches him and Greensly in a confidence scam. A man-child who lives with his mother and is prone to temper tantrums, Richie wants to make a name for himself within the Bureau, and shove it in the face of his straitlaced boss, played by comedian Louis CK. So, he offers the duo a deal: if they participate in an FBI sting operation, dubbed Abscam, he’ll let them off the hook.
Unfortunately, Abscam is one hell of a mission.
First, Irving must bribe the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), then befriend and rope him into a plot involving an FBI agent (Michael Pena) posing as an Arab sheik who wishes to bankroll a hotel-casino in depressed Atlantic City. It’s an idea that Carmine loves because it’ll create thousands of jobs for his people. Unfortunately, the mission soon goes haywire when a group of menacing Miami mobsters—and the nosy Rosalyn—get involved.
The film opens on April 20, 1978, at New York’s Plaza Hotel—at the start of the Abscam operation—before drifting back. Russell, who reworked a script by Eric Warren Singer, is an unabashed fan of Martin Scorsese’s, and has openly admitted that Raging Bull served as inspiration for The Fighter. Here, he’s gone all Goodfellas on us. There are long pans, slo-mo shots of characters strutting down corridors, dazzling costumes, and hairdos galore. The soundtrack, an eclectic mix of jazz, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Electric Light Orchestra, and the Bee Gees, for starters, is perfectly tailored to the funky proceedings. And the most Scorsese-esque technique here is the usage of multiple voiceovers, with various characters narrating parts of the story from their respective points of view.
Russell’s best films center on familial dysfunction—whether it’s his debut, Spanking the Monkey, about an incestuous mother-son relationship; Ben Stiller’s frantic search for his biological parents in Flirting with Disaster; boxer Mickey Ward, his crack head brother, his seven ginger sisters, and his kooky mom in The Fighter; or his last outing, Silver Linings Playbook, which starred Cooper and Lawrence. His films are, like the families they portray, complicated, fascinating messes, and the strange coterie of backstabbing scoundrels in American Hustle might be his wackiest assortment yet.
Much of the credit goes to the actors, who all fully encapsulate their roles. As Irving, Bale, whom we’re so used to seeing grunt-talking as the imposing Batman, delivers his most emotionally tormented role yet. He’s an out-and-out scumbag, but a redeemable one—a spiritual cousin, in some ways, to his lovable junkie Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter. He’s a mess with good intentions, and when the walls start closing in on him—with Sydney seeing Richie behind his back, and the hotheaded Rosalyn cozying up to a mobster, played by Jack Huston—we feel his torment. And Bale, who has become somewhat notorious in Tinseltown for his miraculous physical transformations onscreen—most notably going down to a ghastly 121 pounds for The Machinist—is virtually unrecognizable here.
Adams also impresses as the glamorous Prosser—a woman who’s been living a lie for so long that she’s lost sight of what’s real. Cooper and Renner are solid as the loose cannon Richie and the upstanding Carmine, respectively. Even Louis CK gets in on the fun as the Joe Schmo foil to Richie. Their chemistry, which includes a recurring joke about ice fishing and a crazy, telephone-bashing encounter, is great fun. And last but certainly not least, is Jennifer Lawrence. Her Rosalyn takes the best qualities of Lawrence—the sassiness, the humor, the unpredictability—and ratchets it up to the nth degree. When she storms about the house wildly flailing her body to Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” wearing yellow cleaning gloves and with her massive tower of hair coming apart at the seams, you’ll be floored. Hell hath no fury like a Rosalyn scorned.
American Hustle is, at its core, a fascinating meditation on corruption, and the ways in which the culture both provokes and shames it. It’s also one of the most finely acted—and most thrillingly, maddeningly alive—movies of the year.