David O. Russell juices up the Abscam scandal in the con-artist adventure “American Hustle,” and don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the 1970s sting operation involving politicians accepting bribes.
The movie is a fictional caper about the hearts and aspirations of petty swindlers and related characters who impel themselves into the big time. It is sizzlingly entertaining and emotionally satisfying.
Russell, whose films include outside-the-genre-box depictions of topics ranging from war (“Three Kings”) to boxing (“The Fighter”) to off-kilter romance (“The Silver Linings Playbook”), delivers a blend of a Martin Scorsese gangster film and an old-fashioned screwball comedy in this period romp and actor (and hairstylist) showcase.
The characters are often fact-based, the setting is late-1970s New York and New Jersey, and plaid jackets and avocado-colored wall phones are in.
Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a dry-cleaning entrepreneur and ace swindler with elaborately applied fake hair and a driving desire to achieve glory. When he meets Albuquerque-bred Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who becomes his lover and soul mate, a successful con team is born.
The pair runs a lucrative fake-loan operation for a spell, but FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts them and requires them to assist him with his white-collar crime investigation in order to avoid jail.
Smitten with the pair’s high life, and with Sydney, Richie, who lives unglamorously with his mother, cannot contain his ambition.
He goes after powerful elected officials, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a caring New Jersey mayor and family man.
Florida mobsters, a faux Arab sheik and Irving’s unpredictable young wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who is hardly happy about her husband’s philandering, also figure into the increasingly madcap picture.
With its period-music montages and manic energy, “American Hustle” brings “Goodfellas” to mind, although no one, Russell included, can achieve Scorsese’s verve in this arena. The film also has a sprawling quality that undermines suspense. Scenes of arguments between Richie and his play-by-the-rules boss (Louis C.K) could easily be trimmed, for starters.
But Russell steers the twisty plot adroitly and keeps the period detail vibrant. And as a pair of romantic triangles and an unlikely friendship between Irving and Carmine form, Russell maintains a crucial grip on the humanity beneath the glitz.
The result is an entertaining crime story, a colorful period piece and engrossing human serio-comedy about love, lies and how people deceive others and themselves in an effort to feel big-time, desired and significant.
The cast excels with the screenplay’s richly defined characters. Bale, transformed into a paunchy bow-tied crook with a heart, and Adams, sleek in slit-to-the-waist designer dresses while registering desperation in her character’s eyes, are stellar.
Lawrence, as the vulnerable, manipulative Rosalyn, is a knockout combination of sad soul and screwball ditz. Whether she’s belting “Live and Let Die” while housecleaning or putting metal in the microwave and, oops, setting things aflame, she’s a force of misspent intelligence and passion.
Also top-rate are Cooper and Renner, sporting a perm and a pompadour, respectively. The same goes for an uncredited Russell alum looking precisely like Robert de Niro, playing a Mafia boss.
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Written by Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
Running time 2 hours, 17 minutes