By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Think Casino meets The Grifters, shot through with a hefty dose of the off-kilter … and that’s American Hustle. Between the surprisingly wacky performances and a twisty screenplay bristling with wit, soaked to a fare-thee-well in the pop culture explosion of the late 70s, filmmaker David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter, Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster) delivers a movie that’s not to be missed.
Rather than a dry retelling of the facts, Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer used the FBI’s 1978-1980 Abscam operation as a jumping-off point, fashioning their plot around five primary characters who all believe that they’re experts in the art of deception. Except that there’s a slight wrinkle — it turns out that the deceivers all suffer from their own particular self-deceptions. Consequently, sometimes they do the hustle … other times, the hustle does them.
Flashing back to the bona fide scandal: Abscam started off as a modest Long Island sting operation. The program was run by the Feds, who struck a deal with prison-bound, petty con man Mel Weinberg. The bargain was that if Weinberg helped the FBI construct the sting, he would avoid a 20-year prison sentence. Together, they developed a fake business called Abdul Enterprises (hence, “Ab-Scam”), run by a supposed Arab sheik who boasted of untold wealth. Politicos soon came a-courting, hoping to separate the sheik from some of his dollars, convincing him to invest in such projects as the brand new casino business in New Jersey, real estate in Miami, etc. Collecting hours of covert recordings on video tape, Abscam ultimately entrapped 19 political figures including a U.S. senator, six members of the House of Representatives and local state officials, including the mayor of Camden, New Jersey.
The Weinberg con man gets a fictional re-do as Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, replete with an atrocious comb-over, chunky gold jewelry hanging on his hairy arms and even hairier chest, and a protuberant belly. (A stickler for authenticity, Bale gained 43 pounds for the role.) As Irving’s wife Rosalyn – a shrill, sexually-manipulative yet lovelorn Long Island housewife – Jennifer Lawrence is utterly delicious. The actual Camden mayor (Angelo Errichetti) has been reimagined as Jeremy Renner’s Carmine Polito, a well-meaning, Rat Pack-esque civil servant sporting a pompadour and sideburns that could make Elvis weep. (It seems as if the film’s outrageous panoply of hair pieces is a character unto itself.)
Two fictional characters join the fray: the eager FBI agent, Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso and the stripper turned expert con artist, Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser.
There isn’t a weak performance among this wild cast of zanies. (Reminiscent of a repertory company, four out of five of the principals represent Russell alumni). First, there’s the surprise of Jennifer Lawrence, breaking all prior expectations — à la Mia Farrow’s turn as the Brooklyn mafia widow in Woody Allen’s marvelous Broadway Danny Rose. Cooper is perfect as the overly-zealous DiMaso, his tiny pink hair curlers energetically dancing on his head as he attempts to flirt with Sydney over the phone in his mother’s greasy kitchen, his fiancé looking on in angry confusion. And Renner adds a generous amount of flavor as the mayor who juggles personal interests with the good of his city.
That said, the film’s spotlight falls on the two contentious lovebirds, namely Bale’s Irving and Adams’ Sydney. Falling for each other amid the garments swirling around them on the clothes conveyor at his dry cleaners, we can’t but help root for these swindlers. Bale manages to convey a sweet vulnerability, a sideways moral sensibility and a romantic nature that works in conjunction with his day jobs as a steely-eyed loan shark and art forger. However, it is Adams who has never been better. In earlier films, her characters have been effective but primarily one-note: the naïve nun in Doubt, the bubbly princess in Enchanted, the stern bulldog of a wife in The Master. Yet here she runs the gamut: cool yet emotional, gullible, seductive, extraordinarily smart … it is a performance that simply boggles.
As for Russell, American Hustle is his best movie to date. Continuing to focus his films on relationship over story, the movie sparkles, seduces and tickles — all the while slyly nodding to the congressional and lobbyist-driven corruption that continues to resonate loudly today.
Brilliant in creating magic out of mere celluloid and paper, perhaps it’s Mr. Russell himself who’s the ultimate con artist. A con that we’ll happily surrender to, time and again …
Rating on a scale of 5 pros and con men: 5
Release date: December 20, 2013
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner
Running Time: 126 minutes