David O. Russell hovers at the top of my list of favorite directors. He captures the messy collision of self-interests that for him defines America. In American Hustle, he whips up a black comedy based on Abscam, the late-'70s FBI sting that centered on a bogus sheik and led to the bribery convictions of sundry U.S. politicians. But he doesn't tell the real Abscam story; he adapts it to fit his theme, which is that most of us are busy reinventing ourselves and conning one another.
Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a master flimflam artist who steals from people desperate for bank loans. He and his lover and fellow swindler Sydney, played by Amy Adams, eventually get snared, but the FBI agent in charge, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), offers a way out of the net: Help him catch a bunch of bigger fish and they'll go free.
It sounds like a routine plot, but you've never seen it in clothes and hairstyles this garish. Bale's Irving has the most outlandish comb-over in history: thin strands and wayward puffs glued down and topped with a small, ugly rug. A burgundy three-piece suit and aviator shades complete the hideous effect. Cooper's Richie is a thin-skinned hothead with tight little curls. He and Irving spend much of the movie spraying testosterone at each other and competing for Sydney, who affects a bad English accent to fool Richie — whom she likes but doesn't trust.
American Hustle is loud and big. Russell out-Scorseses Scorsese with hyperbolic technique: whip-pans, whooshes, slo-mo, and tacky but great '70s chart-toppers. He winds his actors up and lets them loose. Bale is outrageously skeevy; Adams uses her blue eyes like stilettos. They put everything they have into scene after scene. The movie is like a slot machine that never stops spitting quarters.
Jennifer Lawrence is the wild card as Irving's wife, who's understandably jealous of his lover and doesn't care who knows. Under a high, bleached beehive, her baby face framed with ringlets, Lawrence's Rosalyn shoves a metal tray into the couple's new microwave — this after she was warned. But don't think that means she'll say sorry when it blows. Who could have dreamed, when Lawrence showed up as a grimly determined Ozarks teenager in Winter's Bone, that she had comic chops this spectacular?
An opening title claims that some of American Hustle "is actually true," though it turns out not much, if you read up. The sting was built around a bogus sheik, but the real mayor of Camden, N.J., Angelo Errichetti, was corrupt to his toes. His on-screen counterpart, Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito, is a Boy Scout in an Elvis pompadour who talks of using the sheik's cash to put people back to work. So Irving, the man who sets him up, becomes a sort of Judas figure — and suffers for it. It makes for a fine Hollywood climax, but once you come down from the high, you might wonder what Russell's saying. That graft isn't bad if it helps cities get back on their feet?
Maybe that is what he's saying. Russell's affections are with small-time con men, like Irving and the Army heroes in his Three Kings, who are in the middle of a heist when they decide to risk their lives for Kurdish civilians abandoned by the U.S. In Russell's world, it's the small-time crooks who see what's really going on — as opposed to government suits or FBI agents who don't care about the little guy.
You don't have to buy Russell's moral relativism completely to think it makes for good political satire. American Hustle is a bit of a hustle itself, but if I'm being taken for a ride, let it be as rollicking as this one. (Recommended)