The Abscam scandal of the late 1970s has been pretty much forgotten these days. It didn’t have the drama of Watergate or the explosive revelations of the Church Committee’s investigation of the CIA. Some think that the public corruption sting operation, which eventually led to the indictment of 6 US Representatives and a Senator, was payback by the FBI for Congress exposing its excesses under Hoover. What it does provide is an excellent true-life base for a fictionalized movie, and that’s how David O. Russell uses it in American Hustle. The movie boasts one of the most honest disclaimers in movie history: rather than saying it’s a true story or it’s based on a true story, it simply says “Some of this actually happened.”
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time businessman in New York City who operates a string of dry cleaners and a glass company, but his vocation is being a con artist who promises to get loans for poor-risk businessmen for a fee and then never delivers the loans. We first meet him as he creates a comb-over to cover his bald spot that’s so elaborate it puts Donald Trump to shame. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who’s reinvented herself as an assistant at Cosmopolitan. They immediately bond over a love of Duke Ellington. When Irving confesses to Sydney how he cons people, she joins him in the game, reinventing herself again as Lady Edith Greensly, Irving’s contact with European bankers. Irving is in love with Sydney, but he’s also married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has adopted Rosalyn’s son Danny from an earlier relationship. Rosalyn is a train-wreck of a person with manic-depressive tendencies and sex appeal enough to share, but Irving loves Danny and is committed to him, so he sticks with Rosalyn.
Irving and Sydney’s con runs smoothly until they’re caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Rather than prosecuting them, Richie wants Irv and Sydney to help him catch other con artists. The play goes to a whole new level, though, when it leads to politicians who are willing to be bribed, including the popular mayor of Trenton, NJ, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
David O. Russell has been on a roll recently with a string of box office and critical successes, and for Hustle he brings back actors who have worked well with him on those previous movies. Bale won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Adams was nominated for Best Actress for Russell’s 2010 movie The Fighter, while Lawrence won Best Actress and Cooper was nominated for Best Actor for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. Russell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Singer (The International), creates real, flawed people in challenging situations and assists the actors in their embodiments of these characters.
All four main actors have been nominated for Golden Globes, and if there’s justice in the world they’ll also get Oscar nods later this month. Bale is an actor without inhibitions or vanity who physically transforms himself into a pudgy, balding middle-aged 70’s swinger. He’s the antithesis of a leading man, yet you’re compelled to watch him. Sensuality flows from Adams in her role as Sydney, a departure from her previous movies, and the performance is as daring as the plunging necklines on her outfits. Cooper builds on his work in Playbook, creating an FBI agent who becomes obsessed with bringing down those he views as corrupt. It’s a more controlled role than in Playbook, and just as watchable. Lawrence demonstrates again why she’s one of the best actresses in the business. As with Bale, she isn’t afraid to play against her beauty.
This is Renner’s first time working with Russell, and hopefully just a precursor of future collaborations. Carmine Polito is the most honorable person in the movie, a politician who will do whatever he can to help his constituents, and Renner pulls off the role beautifully. There are two delightful surprises in the film. One is the performance of comedian Louis C.K. as Richie’s long-suffering FBI supervisor. In effect he’s the straight man to all the craziness that Richie embraces, but in the end he’s the one with the last laugh. The second is a cameo role by Robert DeNiro as a leading Mafioso. (DeNiro re-energized his acting playing the father in Silver Linings Playbook, garnering his first Oscar nomination in a long time.) It’s just one scene, but in it he recaptures the lethal menace he projected in his early work with Scorsese.
The movie revels in its setting in the ‘70s, with period costumes that make you feel like you’ve stepped through a time warp. Special kudos also go to Music Supervisor Susan Jacobs for a score that features an excellent selection of ‘70s music that supports the story. Having a scene of attempted bribery play out over Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” is absolute perfection.
It’s interesting two have two movies about con artists out at the same time – the other being Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. There are sharp contrasts between the two, the most notable being that Hustle plays beautifully while you feel like you’re slogging through Wolf. Both are long movies – 140 minutes for Hustle, 3 hours for Wolf – but where Wolf is like running a marathon, Hustle flies by and leaves you perfectly satisfied. Wolf includes a great deal of nudity and simulated sex, while Hustle has almost no actual nudity. However, Hustle is the more sensual of the two. Wolf’s screenplay revels in profanity – it set a record for use of the F-word; over 500 times in 180 minutes – while you hardly notice profanity in Hustle. Instead, the characters actually talk to each other. Both films use the voice-over conceit, but in Wolf it’s like a Greek chorus alluding to what’s to come, while in Hustle it’s the character’s thoughts at the time.
As a film, American Hustle is the stuff dreams are made of, even as the movie itself shows that dreams turn into nightmares when they’re mixed with obsession. A friend of mine gave this movie 5 thumbs-up in a post on Facebook. I wouldn’t argue with that.