It was a time of wide ties and velvet suits, jangly jewelry, open shirts, big hair and boat-sized cars. After Watergate, cynicism was everybodys default mode. The economy was in the toilet, disco was on the radio and everybody was corrupt.
American Hustle reminds us that as jaded as weve gotten about crime and a rigged economy and government and politics, none of this is new. And if youre looking for a place where right and wrong dissolved to grey, David O. Russells caper comedy is built around the ABSCAM scandal, a wide-ranging FBI sting operation from the golden age of such stings.
Its a film about bottom-feeding con artists, ambitious politicians and insanely ambitious law enforcement folk. And it makes delicious fun of the zero-tolerance zeal built into this scandal and its true cost to our ability to get big things done.
Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a New York low-life who runs loan scams, art forgery scams, and a chain of dry cleaners and glass repair shops all over the Five Boroughs. Hes got a soulmate, a paramour and a partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Like Irving, Sydneys a dreamer. When she buys into his profession, a fake English accent becomes her calling card and Lady Edith Greensly becomes her name. She has connections to London banking.
Irving is fat, with an epic comb-over not quite covering his bald pate. But sexy Sydney shrugs that off. She can see through people, size them up. And shes good at rationalizing their scams.
And then they con the wrong guy. Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is a fanatical FBI agent living the Saturday Night Fever dream. Hes got a room in his moms home, a fiance he has no interest in saddling his future to and his permed hair in curlers every night. Richie is every bit the striver that Irving and Sydney are. What he wants is the glory of tearing down a culture of graft, fraud and corruption.
Russell has plenty of fun with the garish era that becomes the setting and he never lets himself get too caught up in the actual facts of this sting. That involves a fake Arab sheik, a lot of money promised to help re-launch the casino industry in Atlantic City, and politicians and mobsters.
Some of this actually happened, the credits joke.
The three leads narrate the tale. And through them, others find their way in.
Jeremy Renner is terrific as a hard-charging, idealistic mayor, and Jennifer Lawrence is Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irvings wife. Thats right. Hes got an unstable child bride who was a single mom when she married him. Rosalyn is the juiciest character of the lot.
American Hustle is about over-reaching, but its no reach to call this the best movie of the holiday season.