A sprawling, swirling period-piece parable of swinging ’70s greed
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by David O. Russell
R, 138 min.
“Some of this actually happened,” a placard playfully informs us at the beginning of American Hustle, director David O. Russell’s swirling, swinging tale of a pair of con artists in testy, zesty cahoots with an FBI agent to catch even bigger prey in the 1970s. It’s loosely based on the FBI’s real-life ABSCAM sting of the era, which ensnared several high-ranking politicians in a bribery and corruption investigation.
Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time Bronx con artist who’s made out pretty well in forged art and bogus loans. But his graft really kicks into high gear when he hooks up with Sidney (Amy Adams), a former stripper who sees a way to broaden their scams—and pave the way to a much bigger, richer life for them both.
But hold on: Irving’s a married man, and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) is a real suburban scrapper.
Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is the hyper-adrenalized FBI agent eager to make his bones who brings down both Irving and Sidney, then uses them to make an even bigger sting, an elaborate affair that eventually includes a fake sheik (Michael Peña), a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), a slew of politicians and the mafia.
The movie is a deep, delicious dish of late-’70s detail, from the music to the clothes to the hair—and oh, the hair! Bale’s character sports one of the most outrageous comb-overs in the history of cinema, and agent DiMaso reveals that his teeny curls don’t come easy (or natural).
Bale is always fascinating to watch as he burrows into a role, but Adams and Lawrence bring the heat that makes this sexy story sizzle. And Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) juggles his ensemble of complicated, conflicted characters with an orchestral touch that often recalls the mastery of maestro Martin Scorsese—especially in a Goodfellas-esque casino scene with a gaggle of Las Vegas mobsters….and a very special surprise cameo.
It’s all hip, humorous, sad, edgy and immensely entertaining, this sprawling period parable about a group of gaudy, needy, greedy people who aren’t who they purport themselves to be—people with fake tans, fake nails, fake hair, fake lives, people who aren’t “real,” who are always conning somebody, everybody, each other, even themselves.
As Irving says, there’s “a lot of grey” in the muddled middle ground between good and bad, right and wrong, between the forger and the artist, in a world where it seems that everyone’s on the make, on the take, on the hustle, on the scam. Especially when, as Lawrence’s character says, all you’ve been dealt in life are “poisonous choices.”
When that happens, as Russell’s outstanding American Hustle suggests, all any of us might do is whatever it takes to survive.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine