For several years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, an FBI task force in Long Island worked a sting operation designed to ferret out and prosecute corrupt U.S. government officials. Codenamed Abscam (in reference to the phoney Arab sheik the FBI created to bait bribable politicians), the program was masterminded in part Melvin Weinberg, a low-level con artist with a record for running confidence games. All told, Abscam led to the conviction of more than a dozen congressmen, senators, and city officials, and its success necessitated a complete rewrite of the rules for FBI undercover operations.
It’s a hell of a story. American Hustle, the new film from David O. Russell, is not that story, despite sharing the name and general timeline of the Abscam project. But, in many ways, it’s a much better one. For Russell and his characters, real is overrated. American Hustle turns a memorable historical footnote into a generously embellished tale of love, lies, sex, and appearance, the likes of which proves that if truth is ever stranger than fiction, then fiction just needs a better writer.
The film’s on-again, off-again relationship with reality is evident from the cheekily vague opening title that lets you know “some of this actually happened.” What some exactly? Hard to say. From the opening scene – in which Christian Bale tends to a comb over with the precision and care of a bottled ship builder – onward, American Hustle is playing a shell game with its intentions, and those of its character. Many of the latter may have had real world equivalents or inspirations, but the star power of the cast, and the energy of Russell’s direction and script (co-written with Eric Singer) are larger than life. If the film is in need of anything, it’s an opening blurb stating that “the names and events of the Abscam affair have been changed to protect the safety of the audience’s enjoyment,” because why should facts spoil the fun?
Bale plays Weinberg stand-in Irving Rosenfeld, a forged art dealer and con artist working out of the Bronx with ambitions as big as his beer gut. The sexier of those two features catches the attention of Sydney (Amy Adams), a spitfire transplant from Albuquerque that starts running scores with Irving by posing as a wealthy British royal, using bank fraud to screw desperate dupes out of thousands. Though their work is sleazy, Sydney and Irving are no Sid and Nancy pairing, as the instant spark of their relationship grows hotter over the kind of loving montage usually reserved for romantic comedies. Flimflamming soulmates, the two are a couple of ethically sick puppies, but they’re lovesick puppies too; Russell’s empathy for his two leads is palpable, even as they wreak havoc on others, themselves, and one another.
The same sensitivity applies to the man and woman who threaten the pair, one an FBI agent, the other, Irving’s hellacious wife. Bradley Cooper plays Richie DiMaso, the fed who catches on to Irving and Sydney’s game, and shuts them down with little more than a piece of paper. With eyes on bigger prizes, Richie offers the two immunity, so long as they put their skills towards serving up a few high-profile corruption busts. Rounding out the Russell reunion is Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook costar Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, an unpredictable mess that’s got Irving by the only shorthairs he’s got left.
Working “from the feet up” becomes a mantra for the unlikely main trio once they start levelling their crosshairs at Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor looking to jumpstart his community’s economy with gambling, and all the shady business that might entail. But it’s from the head down that all parties involved work to morph themselves into someone different, whether it’s with a perm, an accent, or a change of wardrobe. Narration from multiple viewpoints serves to support the film’s belief that we’re the ultimate creators of our own story, and that it’s a particularly American right to remake oneself in whosever image you want.
Most of the best moments in American Hustle come from watching the characters reveal more and more about their true selves the longer it is they try to stay in disguise. Richie’s dogged pursuit of dirty politicians is a more noble end than grifting a few bucks off of rubes, but his alpha dog attempts to predict, rather than listen to, the moral of a superior’s cautionary tale (Louis C.K., a desert island of droll understatement that Cooper frequently, hilariously crashes upon) reveal insecurities in the man more embarrassing than his hair curler budget. Similarly, Irving’s particular shade of moral greyness shifts drastically the deeper the Abscam affair endangers himself, Sydney, and the one seemingly decent man drawn into the whole affair.
But it’s Adams who lines up just a hair or two taller than the murderers row of good-to-great performances that American Hustle is embarrassingly rich with. Lawrence is a toxic delight playing a hurricane in high heels, and Bale continues to build an argument that he’s in the upper pantheon of leading men, but Adams has the most demanding role by leaps and bound. Even if she had been outfitted in an Iron Lung instead of dresses held up by nothing more than static and friction, she’d still dominate the proceedings, uncovering new facets and dimensions to Sydney with nearly every scene.
It’s a full-bodied performance built piecemeal from the remains of multiple lives dreamed and endeavored. Fittingly, much of American Hustle feels like a patchwork of material ripped from the best, whether through repeated use of Spielbergian dolly zooms, or aping the low lit underworld vibe and vibrancy of Goodfellas. Imitation is the highest form of flattery though, and Russell’s third straight genre film is the best yet of this crowd-pleasing period in his career. Just as The Fighter was a really good boxing film, and Silver Linings Playbook was a really good romantic comedy, once American Hustle’s cyclone of reversals and twists winds down, the film reveals itself as a fairly standard crime saga.
But it’s the fun and warmth of that saga that elevates it to the heights of Russell’s last two films, and beyond. An impeccable soundtrack, wickedly funny script, and fabulous cast make American Hustle so easy to fall for, you won’t even care that it’s bullshitting you whenever it pretends to be about something more than style and fantastic characters. The film is too weightless and workmanlike to be a true work of art, but art is always in the eye of the beholder. If American Hustle can fake being a great movie just as well as another film might really be one, what’s the difference?
With a stacked cast, and sharp scripting and direction from Russell, American Hustle makes for a highly entertaining guide on how to fake it in America