The ’70s. The Me Decade. The end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the battle for the soul of the Federal Government. Watergate and Studio 54, disco and casual drug use. This is the legacy of the years that saw President Richard Nixon resign, Gerald Ford try to “Whip Inflation Now”, and Jimmy Carter set us up for a 12 years of rotten republican rule. It was also a time of scandal and sweetheart deals, where the FBI and its local crime enforcement counterparts learned of stings and surveillance, entrapment and public outcry. One of the most notorious of these probes went by the codename “ABSCAM” and sought to infiltrate the corruption and graft among elected officials. With the help of a convicted con artist and a focus on political favors and money laundering, it ended up snaring one Senator, six members of the House of Representatives, and other local officials in its web of lies and power plays.
Now David O. Russell, himself no stranger to controversy, has fictionalized this fascinating chapter in our ongoing distrust of our elected officials with the amazing, masterful American Hustle. While the names have been changed and the situation shifted over to the potential renaissance of Atlantic City, the basic premise remains intact. A pair of high profile grifters — Irving Rosenberg (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) — use phony bank accounts and the promise of easy loans to swindle the desperate out of thousands of dollars. When they are finally caught by the FBI, they are pressured into working for the bureau.
The deal, concocted by industrious agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), sees the duo having to bring down four of their fellow hucksters in return for immunity from prosecution. When their first foray into undercover work unearths the shady dealings of the Mayor of Camden New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), Irving and Sydney want out. Sensing bigger and higher profile fish to fry, DiMaso drags them in deeper. Eventually, with the help of a fake Arab sheik, a dangerous connection to the mob, and Irving’s goofball moll of a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), everyone gets in way over their bizarrely coiffed heads.
Like a boulder rolling downhill, slowly picking up speed and eventually smashing everything in its path, Russell’s resplendent American Hustle is unavoidable. It’s also an amazing motion picture. It’s big and ambitious, wild and unruly, living as much by its wit and clockwork plotting as it does its decade defining (lack of) fashion. Damn – did we really look this bad 35 years ago? Leisure suits and bell bottoms were one thing, but this greasy gigolo by way of three martini businessman whore couture is like a trip into a parallel universe. Russell makes the most of our unfamiliarity, allowing his details to wash over us like the lightshow at a dive bar discotheque. As the soundtrack mashes up genres and release dates, we get a wholly immersive experience, albeit one increasingly aided by the acting onscreen.
Simply put, everyone in this movie is impeccable. Bale begins the roll call of praise by putting his superhero days far behind him. When we first meet Irving, his grotesque potbelly initially misdirects us from the comb over fiasco festooning his head. A little contact cement, a batch of hair, and some creative styling and our lead is ready to fleece the world. Using his patented “yowse guys” voice, Bale manages to make this otherwise slimy criminal both compelling and complex. The same goes for Cooper and his tightly permed persona. Part hard working upwardly mobile go getter, part whiny whelp of a Momma’s boy, this is one G-man who barely fits the mandates of the Agency manual. His face-offs with his supervisor (played perfectly by comedian Louis C.K.) are just one of the film’s many highlights. Renner rounds out the gents with both a decency and a deceptiveness that challenge and compliment his well meaning family “man of the people” persona.
But it’s the women who send American Hustle into the stratosphere, with both Adams and Lawrence delivering career defining turns. The latter is her usual dopey, driven self, doing a brilliant deconstruction of the kind of slutty Jersey girl certain jokes are made of. With her low cut outfits and brain fart philosophizing, Rosalyn steals every scene she’s in – sometimes, on purpose. But it is Sydney, under the guise of a “veddy British” financier named Lady Edith Greensly, whose the soul of this film. Adams goes through such a range here – from eager novice to knowing accomplice, worshiped lover to distraught ‘other woman,’ that you wonder how she doesn’t literally fall apart in front of us. She’s the catalyst for most of what happens in American Hustle, as well as the reason things do indeed start to unravel.
For his part, Russell gets the period details down. The music may be all over the map, time line wise, but the look and feel of the film is linked into those last waning days of an exploitation 42nd Street, Steve Rubell, and Interview Magazine. It’s all a precursor to the Moral Majority, Trickle Down economics, and ‘Morning in America.’ You can see it in the grit and grime of the locations. You can sense it in the dimly lit bars where Irving, Sydney, and Richie ply their trade. You can also see it in the pre-profiler FBI, locked into the logistics of a rulebook which sometimes fails to get the job done. This is indeed a time capsule, as much a motion picture memory lane (with benefits) as Goodfellas or Boogie Nights. Russell occasionally lets things get away from him, but for the most part, he is as flawless as the actors inhabiting this world.
In fact, this may be the Russell film fans have been waiting for – part gonzo spirit straight from Three Kings and Flirting with Disaster, part mainstream movie guide of the last few years. It’s a clever balancing act that’s indicative of the overall film in general. Sure, a straightforward piece on ABSCAM may have been preferable, but this was not the goal of American Hustle. As Jennifer Lawrence’s character says, in referencing Dr. Wayne Dyer’s book, it’s all about the power of intentions. Had he wanted to make an All the President’s Men type take on this material, one imagines Russell capable of the task. Similarly, he could have struck Argo like awards season feel good pay dirt. Instead, American Hustle is like a randy Ralph Bakshi cartoon come to life, with just a bit of the hedonistic bravado toned down. It’s so satisfying. It’s so suspect. It’s so ’70s. And it’s so good.