Somehow there’s never been a big movie about Abscam, the ambitious late-1970s FBI corruption probe that convicted six Congressmen and one Senator for taking bribes from fake Arab sheikhs. Although it plays with a few shards of the real story, David O. Russell’s highly imitative but gung-ho drama American Hustle is not really about Abscam. What you have here, amidst all the science-fiction hair and byzantine deals cut in rooms lined with cheap wood paneling, is an epic power ballad of a story about love, friendship, and the high costs of each.
Determinedly channeling the coiled watchfulness and timebomb passions of Robert De Niro in his prime while still cutting his own trail, Christian Bale comes out swinging in his portrayal of Irving Rosenfeld, a paunchy con artist with an elaborate combover and a thing for Duke Ellington. He’s a character who makes other people believe in what he’s selling because they can see that deep down he really wants to believe it himself. Irving’s heavy-footed Bronx narration about his hopes and dreams and pulling this scam and that provides the brazenly optimistic spirit of Russell’s film, which doesn’t bother hiding its indebtedness to Goodfellas or Casino because, really, what would be the point?
Irving’s the focal point in this all-American striver’s triangle of greed, ambition, and hope. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is the red-haired up-for-anything survivor who falls for the guy because at heart she’s a dreamer just like Irving. No matter that he’s got a kid and a wife out on Long Island, Sydney’s happy to reinvent herself as Lady Edith Greensleeve. Her British accent and vague talk about “banking connections” in London nets them gullible fish after fish. Everybody wants what they can’t have.
The film truly starts when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts Irving and Sydney for fraud and offers a deal. DiMaso’s ambitions get ever bigger after that, pulling these two careful short-con grifters into a dangerously spiraling long-con investigation that drags in politicians and a Miami mobster (De Niro, paying his respects). It’s clear that Richie is not exactly on the up and up, trying to nail politicians for bribery just to make a name for himself. Sniping from the sidelines is Richie’s low-key boss (Louis C.K., superbly downbeat) and Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, snappishly unhinged and nearly perfect), whom he describes as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” Both characters are hardly essential to the plot, but like Alessandro Nivola’s devious Christopher Walken imitation as the prosecutor Richie’s trying to sell his case to, they all make it more of a party.
In her narration — there’s a lot of that in the film, these people are talkers — Sydney explains how Irving’s semi-comical appearance didn’t matter to her; his confidence drew her in. It works the same for the audience, whom Russell and Bale invite to laugh at the guy with their opening shot of him carefully reconstructing his pterodactyl nest of hair. In Irving’s first big scene with DiMaso’s target — Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, never better) — he’s able to yank Carmine back to a meeting he’d just stormed out of by doing little more than talking about their favorite Bronx restaurant and playing up a “guys like us” camaraderie. It’s a beautifully handled scene, and the kind of thing that helps the film leap confidently past its second-hand stylistics.
American Hustle is itself something of a scam, all truth be told. Russell is working in a minor Scorsese key that throws his crooks-in-love story into a blender with zoom cuts, wall-to-wall pop soundtrack, a can-you-believe-this? incredulousness, and performances whose up-against-the-wall desperation feeds the impression of an era coming to an end. What era that might be is never quite clear, as Russell and Eric Singer’s script is far more interested in the logistics of the star trio’s scams and love triangle, as well as the deepening friendship between Carmine and Irving (the film’s true love story, and close to heartbreaking at the end) than digging into Abscam itself. But in the end, the filmmakers and their cast are so eager to sell the sizzle that the lack of a steak barely registers after the glitter is gone.