“Some of this actually happened,” the movie’s opening shot deadpans. It is true that the United States government both threatened and paid a con man to help them con some bigger fish and then accidentally ended up conning some of the biggest fish ever caught — six US Congressmen and a Senator. David O. Russell directed and co-wrote “American Hustle,” the story of 1970’s fraud, insanity, and betrayal, plus a lot of “what were we thinking” hair and clothes and a rockin’ soundtrack, from “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” to “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” and the inevitable “Horse With No Name.”
The storyline has so many layers of double-cross, lies, betrayal, grandiosity, and sheer insanity that the audience may feel they are getting lost, but in a way, that is the point, and of course, that is the decade for it. I mean, look at the home perm on Bradley Cooper, who plays the hotdog FBI agent Ricky DiMaso as something of a cross between Starsky, Hutch, and Huggie Bear.
And then there is the hair on Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld. It can perhaps best be described as an edifice. As the movie begins, we are treated to the painstaking assembly of his pompadoured comb-over, remarkable to witness and a dead-on detail that lets us know who we will be following for the rest of the film. He is a phony, he is all about making the surface look better than it should, and he will do whatever it takes to put forward the image that will sell whatever he is trying to sell. Ascot, check. Pinky rink, check. Briefcase full of cash, check.
Flashback. Rosenfeld is the master of at least half a dozen medium-sized scams when, at a party, across the room, he spies a beautiful woman. It is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They share a love of Duke Ellington and a talent for re-invention. “My dream” she tells us, “more than anything, was to become anything else than what I was.”
They cook up an almost-legal scam, taking up-front fees on the promise of using their connections to obtain loans from some vaguely defined “London connections.” All is fine until they get busted. And DiMaso, intrigued by their world of deception, persuades them to work for him to bring down some big-time criminals.
But things get complicated and messy. DiMaso’s boss (a terrific Louis C.K.) is reluctant to have federal officers engage in criminal activities, even to catch other criminals. One of the great joys of this film is when the boss keeps trying to tell DiMaso an ice-fishing story that never gets to the point because the hotheaded DiMaso keeps interrupting him. Rosenfeld is married to an unhappy, volatile wife named Rosalyn (a dazzling performance of astonishing depth and mesmerizing assurance by Jennifer Lawrence) and stepfather to her son. He has to find a way to resolve things with the FBI, the mob, and the politicians.
The unfinished ice-fishing story is the point. This is not a nice, linear explanation for what happened. This is a bunch of stories that intersect in a maze of all seven of the deadly sins plus a few that should also be on the list. Brilliant performances by everyone in the cast (including Alessandro Nivola as an FBI official and an unbilled guest star as a guy from the mob) and a witty, insightful script are what hold it together. Lawrence makes us furious at and sorry for her character at the same time, and she is sizzlingly funny.
The purpose of this film is not to illuminate the particular events of Abscam. It is to meditate on the irrepressible American enthusiasm for self-invention and the thicket of betrayal and damage that can be the result. It is about the stories we tell, even the ones like the ice fishing story that never get to make a point. Russell himself can’t resist tweaking the details, making the characters more interesting and sympathetic than they really were. But that wouldn’t be a good story.
Parents should know that this film has very strong adult material including constant bad language, explicit sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking and drug use, extensive criminal behavior and betrayal.
Family discussion: Who are the biggest con artists in this story? How do the characters determine who deserves their loyalty? Was justice done?
If you like this, try: “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Fighter,” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” from the same director