The notorious FBI Abscam operation provides the premise for the stylized, hyperkinetic period piece “American Hustle”. The characters, however, undoubtedly belong to director David O. Russell, who co-wrote with Eric Singer (“The International”) this heavily-fictionalized, often comical account of the sting that took place during the late ’70s – early ’80s. Russell’s star-studded magnum opus, based very loosely on events that resulted in the conviction of several Congressman and a U.S. Senator, among others who accepted bribe money from agents posing as wealthy Arab sheiks (one of whom is played in the film by Michael Peña of last year’s “End of Watch”), brings together some leading players from his last two films – Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from last year’s unconventionally heartwarming “Silver Linings Playbook” and Christian Bale and Amy Adams from 2010’s factually-inspired “The Fighter”. Each actor stepping into new territory, not one of them bearing much resemblance to anything they’ve played before, the cast is sometimes overwhelmed by Russell’s apparent campaign to outdo himself and the resulting distension of the story.
Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a pot-bellied, oddly charming career con artist whose living is made from bogus loans and forged art, among other things, but who is first noted for his very elaborate comb-over. When he and mistress Sydney Prosser (a sultry Adams at her scantily clad best) get nabbed by overzealous, perm-sporting FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper at his zaniest), they’re reeled into an arrangement that will ultimately keep them out of prison – as long as they help the bureau catch a few bigger fish, they’ll get off scott-free.
But Rosenfeld, who’s based on a real guy named Mel Weinberg, ends up forming a friendship with his new federally assigned mark, and with it comes a moral dilemma. DiMaso’s white whale is Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a sort of political Robin Hood whose strides to promote jobs in New Jersey allegedly involves some pretty shady dealings (there’s a great cameo in a meeting with some mobsters). Polito is inspired by Angelo Errichetti, who was the mayor of Camden, New Jersey during the real investigation; he’s portrayed by Renner as a lovable, well-intentioned guy looking for any way to improve his community. But his ambition, while admirable, makes him the perfect target for a bribery bust, and DiMaso’s going to be the one to catch him with his hand in the till.
Like Polito, Rosenfeld has a family, and that’s probably why the two connect. Irv is married to the modelesque but unstable Rosalyn (an explosively off-kilter Lawrence) and is a caring stepfather to her young son. Rosalyn is stubborn and unstable – the “Picasso of passive-agressive karate”, as Bale’s Irving laments – and could possibly be Rosenfeld’s, if not the entire operation’s, undoing.
Like most caper films, everyone has an agenda. Adams’ Sydney, whose alter-ego is the British aristocrat that Cooper’s DiMaso actually believes her to be, seems to be drifting from Irving’s allegiance. Can Rosenfeld swindle his way out of DiMaso’s vice grip, somehow protect Polito, hold on to Sydney and keep Rosalyn at bay?
Fashioned similarly to a Scorsese picture with each character contributing narration, but still unquestionably Russell’s in its treatment of the material, “American Hustle” is a pulsating, perpetually shifting, sometimes unwieldy piece of work, but it’s one of the most outright entertaining films I’ve seen so far this year. Worthy of a second viewing, no doubt, it overcomes multiple narrative hiccups because the characters are so interesting to watch. Like most Russell pictures, the personalities practically burst out of the screen. “Hustle”, which was originally entitled “American Bullshit”, gets an additional half-star for comedian Louie C.K.’s portrayal of a by-the-book FBI agent who is DiMaso’s office nemesis.