You’ve seen smoother, more elegant con movies than “American Hustle,” but probably none quite so big-hearted or so rudely, insistently entertaining. As directed by that master of modern farce, David O. Russell, this sprawling fictionalized account of the notorious Abscam case is less a dramatic FBI procedural than a human comedy writ large, ringing a series of screwball variations on themes of duplicity and paranoia against a dazzling ’70s backdrop. Deliriously funny and brilliantly acted by a cast of Russell returnees, the film is also overlong, undisciplined and absent the sort of emotional payoff that made “Silver Linings Playbook” so satisfying, which could affect its otherwise solid theatrical prospects. Still, this star-studded Sony prestige release is a near-continual pleasure to spend 135 minutes with, repeatedly hitting that comic sweet spot where corruption and buffoonery collide.
After putting his sharp but crowd-pleasing stamp on the boxing drama with 2010’s “The Fighter” and the romantic comedy with last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell has taken appreciable risks with “American Hustle,” as he and co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer (“The International”) chart a shaggy, meandering journey across a sweeping and colorful true-crime canvas. Notably, this is Russell’s first foray into period filmmaking (not counting his First Gulf War drama “Three Kings”), and he and his collaborators — particularly production designer Judy Becker, costume designer Michael Wilkinson, composer Danny Elfman and above all music supervisor Susan Jacobs — have hurled themselves into their mid-’70s New Jersey milieu with a palpable delight in the garish excesses of the era.
Loud fashions and outsized shades abound from the first scene, in which paunchy, middle-aged Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) fusses with an elaborate hairpiece — a perfect intro to a movie about the joy and, for these professional tricksters, the necessity of donning false identities. The screenwriters may have changed their characters’ names to protect the not-so-innocent (“Some of this actually happened,” notes an opening title card), but knowing viewers will recognize Irving as a stand-in for Mel Weinberg, a Long Island scam artist who joined forces with the FBI to avoid prison time. Out of that unlikely partnership emerged Abscam, an audacious sting operation that pushed federal undercover work to controversial new levels of manipulation and entrapment, resulting in the bribery convictions for seven congressmen and various other government officials in 1981.
Given Russell’s instinctive affection for loudmouths, outcasts and head cases, it’s neither a surprise nor a stretch for him to identify with Irving, a relatively honorable small-time hustler and a sort of dilettante among frauds: He owns a legit dry-cleaning business but moonlights as an art forger and loan shark, bilking desperate applicants out of a few thousand dollars at a time. But things change when he falls hard for smart, beautiful redhead Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), an unlikely kindred spirit who, adopting the seductive, worldly alias of a British businesswoman named Lady Edith, swiftly moves Irving’s scam into the big leagues.
Irving is married (more on that later), but he and Sydney/Edith make such splendid, sexy partners in crime that they soon draw the attention of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, rocking a dark brown perm), who catches them mid-fraud and strongarms them into working undercover for the bureau. It’s typical of the film’s topsy-turvy moral universe that Richie comes across as no less shady, demented or reckless than his reluctant informants, throwing caution to the wind — and riling his straight-laced boss (a wonderfully surly Louis C.K.) — as he strives to root out corruption in high places, even if it means planting the means and opportunity himself. Soon Richie’s using Irving to target Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the popular mayor of Camden, N.J., by dangling a $2 million foreign investment that will supposedly help rebuild Atlantic City’s casino-resort scene.
If all that sounds complicated, “American Hustle” is just getting warmed up. To maintain a convincing front, Richie presses the Bureau for cash while Irving invents a deep-pocketed Arab sheikh (actually a Mexican-American FBI agent played by Michael Pena), momentarily rousing the suspicion of one of Carmine’s more dangerous associates, Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro, in a terrific one-scene cameo that introduces the film’s sole moment of pulse-quickening menace). But it soon becomes clear that the chief threat to their survival isn’t Tellegio but Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s outspoken, irrepressible loon of a wife, whose intense jealousy of Sydney and insistence on getting her way threaten to topple the whole operation.
Rosalyn may be no con artist, but it’s Lawrence who steals the picture, giving another marvelously unpredictable performance in an entirely different key from that of her Oscar-winning turn in “Silver Linings Playbook” (or, needless to say, her starring role in “The Hunger Games” franchise). Of all the fine actors returning from “Playbook” (Cooper, De Niro) and “The Fighter” (Bale, Adams), Lawrence is the one who feels like the purest embodiment of Russell’s ethos, a natural-born comic spitfire whose lightning shifts in mood and flashes of temper suggest unfiltered emissions from the writer-director’s subconscious. Brazenly flirting with mobsters one minute and setting the kitchen ablaze the next, Rosalyn is ferocious, maddening and impossible not to love.
She isn’t, however, the only big personality who occasionally yanks the film away from its predetermined course, assuming such a course existed to begin with. On some level, Russell and Singer haven’t fully cracked the story here, much less figured out the most focused way to tell it; those hoping for a dry, meticulous version of the Abscam narrative should stick to Wikipedia. But although it’s not without its drawbacks — namely, a lack of tension over the long haul and an abrupt, dramatically soft conclusion — this exaggerated human-circus approach feels like the right one for a true-life saga of such absurd, outrageous proportions.
In film after film, Russell doesn’t just flirt with disaster but courts it openly, positioning his characters in precarious, pinball-like configurations and letting them fly, his sympathies alighting on each of these lovable losers in turn. (There are no heroes or villains here, and no dominant protagonist, either, as evidenced by the way the voiceover keeps shifting from one character to the next.) A bromance of sorts brews between Carmine and Irving, who feels guilty about setting up his new friend for a nasty public fall, especially as the unsuspecting mayor unwittingly does the same for his high-ranking pals. Meanwhile, Sydney and Rosalyn clash over Irving (in a memorably heated faceoff that stops just short of a catfight), even as Sydney finds herself mysteriously drawn toward Richie.
But the sexual tension between federal agent and femme fatale is held in check by their mutual distrust, each suspecting the other may be playing them for a fool — a push-pull dynamic that makes “American Hustle,” among other things, a heartfelt inquiry into the allure of false fronts and the universal need to be loved for one’s true self. In that respect, there’s a dash of Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve” (Adams’ on-and-off British accent plays like an homage to Barbara Stanwyck) in a picture that otherwise suggests an Altmanesque spin on “The Sting.” If the result can feel like as much of a mess as that description implies, it’s a rich, glorious mess, and its underlying craftsmanship is apparent in the characters’ beautifully delineated relationships, each with its own jangly rhythm and distinct feel.
Much of the credit goes to the actors at the core of the ensemble, delivering performances with the improvisatory swing and expert timing of a great jazz quintet. Bale, who drastically slimmed down to play boxer Dicky Edlund in “The Fighter,” has gone to the opposite extreme here, packing on a few pounds and looking almost unrecognizable behind his aviator sunglasses and unflattering combover. Showing a warm and surprising restraint in the role of a madly inventive grifter, henpecked husband and loving adoptive father (to Rosalyn’s son), the actor is increasingly called upon to fill the story’s moral center as the stakes and shenanigans around him escalate.
As Irving’s rival, captor and ally, Cooper (whom Russell can’t resist showing with his hair full of pink curlers) gives a bristling, energetic turn that makes clear Richie’s own love for the swindle, while Adams holds her own as the shrewd yet vulnerable scammer whose emotional indecision plays a crucial role in the story’s twisty outcome. As the film’s biggest patsy (modeled on former Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti), Renner, in his best performance since “The Town,” looks and sounds every inch the well-liked, well-fed Joisey Eyetalian.
If Russell wraps up this big show with more flair than finesse, the craft contributions boast plenty of panache, including Linus Sandgren’s fluid, mobile widescreen camerawork and the dynamic editing by Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten, always finding interesting visual and rhythmic entry points into a scene. From the men’s plaid sports jackets and honkin’ bowties to the shimmery, plunging-neckline number worn by Adams in a crucial sequence, Wilkinson’s fantastic costumes revel in the possibilities of the milieu. But nothing sets the mood as thoroughly as the soundtrack, overflowing with jazz standards and ’70s hits, and at one point using Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” to particularly hypnotic effect.
The picture establishes a playful attitude toward its own period stylings at the outset with not just a restored 1978 Columbia logo, but also amusingly trippy faux-gos created for Atlas Entertainment and Annapurna Pictures.