American Hustle opens to paunchy, middle-aged grifter-for-life Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) primping his heinous comb-over and novelty-sized hair piece in front of a mirror.
More than a lighthearted moment, his painfully obvious act of deception is a symbol of what’s to come. The con is on in David O. Russell’s new dark comedy-drama American Hustle, and it involves a lot more than comically bad hair.
American Hustle explores the biggest political sting operation in U.S. history, ABSCAM, when a con artist named Mel Weinberg (the real-life inspiration for Rosenfeld) teamed with the FBI in the late 1970s to net a half-dozen corrupt politicians.
But even if you know how the story, you don’t know the film — Russell pulls a fast one or two on his own, historical accuracy be damned in the greater cause of better filmmaking.
American Hustle’s account is accurate in the larger sense. But just as the names of the real-life ABSCAM players have been changed, the film isn’t intended as history class pedagogy but a fast-paced and slick riff on true events.
At the center of the film is Rosenfeld, a lifelong con artist who as a boy smashed building windows to boost neighborhood business for his father’s glass company. Gifted with the ability to swindle, Rosenfeld’s chief assets are deception and immunity to the guilt over those he cheated: from the art forgeries he hawks to museums, to cheating on his mess of a wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he long ago stopped loving but remains with out of love and fear for her young son.
Graceless and with a slight hunch to his stance, Bale disappears into the character. It’s a performance not of makeup, terrible wigs, and 1970s clothes but the actor’s understated delivery and presence, which grounds the character in believability, in a story that is often anything but.
Lawrence is a dynamo as an unstable woman with no filter. It’s a bold performance that blows up onscreen but isn’t without our empathy. Beneath Rosalyn’s theatrics there’s sincere heartache. She knows Rosenfeld’s heart belongs to another woman, and all of her actions reflect that pain and the fear that she’s nothing without him.
Directed by David O. Russell.
Written by Eric Singer and Russell.
A Sony/Columbia release, playing at Cinemark Franklin park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and brief violence.
Running time: 138 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★★★★
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Shea Whigham.
The completion to this dysfunctional love triangle is Rosenfeld’s mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Based on Weinberg’s real-life mistress, Prosser is re-imagined as a New Mexico stripper living in New Jersey who reinvents herself as a British lady of quasi royalty — complete with a wonderfully faux British accent — to help Rosenfeld scam desperate-for-cash people, the ones the banks won’t help.
It’s Adams’ finest moment onscreen, alternating as two separate personalities, each of whom use considerable sex appeal to sell their lies. More than an open blouse and legs, Prosser is smart and adept at self-survival. There’s the real feeling that, no matter how dire circumstances, she will always find a way to slip out of trouble. And even as the chaos of the con threatens to overwhelm everyone, she quietly keeps the film grounded.
The other major players in this story are an undercover FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). DiMaso busts Rosenfeld and Prosser, and to get out of their legal mess, they agree to help him scam uncover politicians on the take, the first up being Polito, a likable guy with a large family to support who helps Rosenfeld, Prosser, and DiMaso make contact with D.C. politicos.
The scam is an elaborate con that involves an oil-rich Arab sheik willing to pay large sums of money for needed political favors. DiMaso is quickly seduced by ABSCAM, as it became known, and what it can mean for his career, while his direct supervisor Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.) fights him at every turn, particularly as the tax-payer financed requests to support the con grow larger: more money, hotel suites, and a private jet.
Rosenfeld has own issues. He’s worried that Prosser is falling for DiMaso, while his mess of a wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) fights him every step of the way, and threatens to derail the whole operation, particularly as she becomes closer to Polito and his wife.
Not to be overlooked are the strong performances of Cooper and Renner as two men caught up in self-serving desperation, but for different reasons. Neither is entirely likable or detestable, a motif that defines this topsy-turvy morality play of anti-heroes.
Set in the past, American Hustle is really Russell’s cynical examination of our present: an era of record-low ratings for Congress, almost daily banking and big business scandals, and a generation grown accustomed to such systemic failure and corruption.
Wrapped within the commentary, though, is a terrific story of twists and turns initially scripted by Eric Singer and restructured by Russell. American Hustle is a modern-day Sting, but with gangsters replaced by beltway players on the take and the feds in on the scam to nab them.
In a once-flagging filmmaking career resurrected and redefined by a brilliant trilogy of work (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle), Russell has asserted himself as the premier voice of the audience, a people’s writer-director with something to say about our times and a growing oeuvre that will live far beyond.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.