Smart, Witty and Fun
On its surface, American Hustle relates the story of one of the most extraordinarily damning scandals of the ‘70s. But beneath that grimy facade of sleazy con-men, corrupt politicians, and oily FBI agents, is the powerful love story between Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), two small-time hustlers who get caught with their hands in the racketeering cookie jar by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
At least that’s the story David O. Russell is telling, anyway. An opening title card proclaiming "some of this actually happened" lets us know what we are about to see will have very little in common with the real Abscam scandal that brought down nearly a dozen U.S. Congressmen, Senators, and local New York political figures -- and almost everything to do with everyone involved having a whole lot of fun -- including the audience.
That’s right, despite what’s depicted in the film’s trailers, American Hustle is a comedy. And what a good one it is. It’s not so much the “ha-ha” type with well-timed jokes and hilarious sight gags -- though there are plenty of those, as it is one built on smart and witty dialogue from a snappy script (by Russell and Eric Singer) that allows all the performers to hustle our sympathy, despite their pitifully sinful ways.
As part of a plea deal to avoid prosecution, Irving and Sydney are forced to work with agent DiMaso of the FBI to set up a sting meant to capture corrupt government officials, starting with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey political operator eager to bring about the resurrection of Atlantic City with new real estate and development deals. He’s so eager in fact, it means dealing with an unusual character in the form of a fake wealthy Arab investor named Sheik Abdullah (Michael Peña). That part of the story is true. You can’t make this stuff up.
Quickly seduced by the glitz and glamour of Irving and Sydney’s alluring world of confidence, Agent DiMaso sees in the scam a chance to transform himself into the man he wants to be … a man in control of his own destiny. In fact, everyone sees their chance to reinvent, especially Sydney and Irving who hope to pull off this one last scam to remake themselves in order to survive -- but when they finally do it, what will happen to their love for each other?
The main obstacle to their dangerous relationship will be Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s wife and mother of his adopted son. The emotional instability of this woman – a manipulative fire-from-the-hip wild card to the entire operation -- could bring them all down. Lawrence is brilliant as the unstable Long Island housewife who plays perfectly counter to Adams’ sophisticated Sydney. Rosalyn’s lack of cultural refinement, constant gum-chewing, and red acrylic nails play nicely alongside her Brooklyn accented rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. Lawrence’s outstanding performance is sure to be remembered come Oscar time.
Bale’s work here is also Oscar bait. Reuniting with filmmaker Russell (The Fighter), he comes out swinging with his beer-bellied shyster character who sports an elaborate comb-over he meticulously grooms in one of the film’s opening scenes. Bale’s Irving makes others buy what he’s selling, probably because he truly believes it himself. We feel for the guy in spite of his shameful ways, simply because he’s so darn lovable with his comedic charm and deceptively naive vulnerability.
At times, director David O. Russell’s genre-bending American Hustle appears as smooth and sexy as a Disco ‘Round line dance with cool period costumes and a paisley-tinged soundtrack. But at other times it emits the offensive stench of real life with its all-too-authentic attempt at portraying the way we all pretend not to be –- trying to figure out just how far the envelope can be pushed in our quest to become successful.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated “R” for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.