The films of David O. Russell have a certain characteristic swagger, a slightly self-mocking confidence that sometimes borders on the buffoonish. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) loves protagonists who are thoroughly deluded as to their own ability to carry out whatever probably-unwise scheme they’ve talked themselves into—but who charge ahead with it anyway. That makes him the perfect director for this seriocomic retelling of the story of Abscam, an unlikely FBI sting operation in the late ’70s and early ’80s that grew from a small time stolen-property investigation into a full-fledged political scandal involving paid informants, bribe-taking congressmen, and FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks.
The true story of Abscam and its aftermath is significantly different—sadder and, in many ways, crazier—than Russell’s freewheeling remix. But it’s clear the director didn’t set out to make a historically accurate political thriller. American Hustle lies somewhere on the spectrum between a raunchy All the President’s Men and an emo Goodfellas. It’s a sprawling, sexy crime-and-corruption epic that playfully dodges its debt to history, from its opening title—“some of this actually happened”—to its end-of-credits kicker: “This is a work of fiction.” And while there’s no shortage of political and underworld intrigue, Russell’s script—co-written with Eric Warren Singer—is less interested in the details of the Abscam operation than in the relationships among the outsize personalities behind its planning and execution.*
The biggest of all those personalities belong to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who, as the movie begins, are both lovers and partners in a variety of small-time confidence schemes. Irving operates a string of dry-cleaning stores that seem to do more figurative than literal laundering; he also fences stolen art for the black market and makes a killing guaranteeing bogus loans to anyone desperate enough to front him $5,000 (a scam that, when we see it in action, can’t help but evoke the financial chicanery that led to the crash of 2008). For their business transactions, Sydney, a born mimic and highly adroit liar, adopts the persona of an English aristocrat, Lady Edith Greensly, a jetsetting sophisticate with a vast web of social connections. In actuality, Sydney is just a hard-luck girl from Albuquerque who can’t convince her married lover to leave his wife, a much-younger former single mother named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
To invest in the outcome of the various questionably legal escapades that make up the last third of American Hustle, you have to care about the Irving/Sydney/Rosalyn triangle, and the first 20 minutes or so of the film do an excellent job of making that happen. Even if he is a paunchy middle-aged schmo with an epically bad combover—in the first scene, we watch him methodically construct a complex edifice of half-real, half-fake hair before heading out for a long day of grifting—you can see why Irving might appeal to these beautiful, smart, insecure young women. He’s an artist of the long con who takes real pride in his work, not to mention joy in showing his ladies a good time on their ill-gotten spoils. Ever up for a challenge (and an Oscar), Bale gained 40 pounds to play the part of this Bronx-born scammer. Overweight, balding, and outfitted in supremely ugly ’70s high fashion—I seem to recall a pumpkin-colored polyester three-piece suit—Bale has never looked worse, or been better.
Jennifer Lawrence is getting a lot of attention for her performance as the formidable Rosalyn, whom she plays as a kind of old-Hollywood gangster’s moll, ditzy on the outside but inwardly cunning as a fox—the kind of self-possessed party girl who thinks nothing of flirting with a whole pack of Mafia thugs as a way of getting back at her philandering spouse. She’s very funny and wildly charismatic, demonstrating a flair for comedy I hope she gets more chances to exercise. But it’s Amy Adams who has the tougher and more interesting role. Slinking around in Lycra dresses cut down to the navel, her demeanor as unflappably cool as her eyes are desperate, the steel-willed Sydney-turned-Lady Edith is a study in American self-reinvention, and self-deception. “My dream,” she tells us in voice-over—one of four voice-overs we hear from different characters’ points of view, Casino-style—“was to become anything other than what I was.” In one late scene, Sydney drops the posh accent, defiantly revealing her unglamorous true self to a character who has a lot invested in the fantasy of Lady Edith Greensly. It’s the kind of intimate, emotionally volatile moment Russell excels at coaxing from his actors, and Adams plays it with all she’s got—in a movie full of operatic scenes, it’s one of the more show-stopping arias.
Russell has never been much of a stickler for structure. His films tend to be recognizable by their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bagginess—and, true to form, American Hustle takes its sweet time setting up the complicated FBI plot at its center. The rogue agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper in a scene-stealing perm) eventually gathers so much dirt on Irving and Sydney’s various con operations that they agree to work for him as informants to save themselves jail time. The net they cast will eventually haul in not only several members of Congress, but the hardworking, decent, only slightly corrupt mayor of Camden, N.J., Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who’s made the fateful mistake of believing Irving Rosenfeld is a friend he can trust. Louis C.K. appears, looking stiff and uncomfortable, in a small role as DiMaso’s perpetually naysaying FBI boss. An uncredited Robert DeNiro seems to be having more fun—quite a bit, in fact—as an Italian mob boss who agrees to a sit-down with the Hispanic FBI-agent-turned-fake-Arab-sheik (Michael Peña).
David O. Russell has filmmaking talent coming out of his ears, but sometimes his movies seem like records of the struggle to control and manage that flow. I love American Hustle’s choppy, idiosyncratic energy—it doesn’t hit the beats you’d expect from a crime epic, just as Silver Linings Playbook didn’t hit the beats you’d expect from a romance. But Russell’s reliance on Scorsese-ian montages of wrongdoing scored to period pop hits—America, the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Elton John—becomes something of a tic midway through. Delightful as the soundtrack is, these sleazily exultant musical interludes start to feel like bursts of energy in place of a plot. By the last scene, it’s not clear just how much of substance there is behind the sleight-of-hand trickery of American Hustle. But the film pulls the wool (or glittery Lycra) over our eyes with such skill, it’s hard to object.
Correction, Dec. 26, 2013: This article originally said Abscam was not mentioned by name in the film. It was, briefly. The actor Michael Peña was also misidentified as Richard Peña. (Return.)