In his follow-up to the inexplicable hit The Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell delivers a legitimate hit that pays a kind of left-handed homage to the grand scam movie The Sting.
The dynamic is the same, given American Hustle centres on a seedy grifter and his beautiful young novice. But instead of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, we get Christian Bale and Amy Adams as, respectively, con artist Irving Rosenfeld, and his mistress/partner/soulmate Sydney Prosser.
The two enjoy a life of modest wealth and gaudy fashion in the late '70s as a result of miscellaneous art and finance scams, coupled with Irving's dry cleaning businesses. But they themselves are scammed by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who arrests Sydney as the opening gambit of a bigger game. He wants to employ Irving and Sydney to help him construct a scheme that will net some high-profile government officials that may be willing to exchange favours for money.
That game-plan takes them into the orbit of Camden, N.J., mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a politician on a legitimate mission to invigorate his economically depressed community with the potential gold mine of legalized gambling.
The script by Russell and Eric Singer is based on the Abscam affair, in which FBI agents really did employ a con artist to help them net some big political fish. (Would it be outlandish to suggest the feds may have been somewhat inspired by the Newman-Redford movie given that the ploy was frequently referred to as a "sting?")
The movie certainly registers as an improvement over Silver Linings Playbook, which was a contrived celebration of troubled people and their ability to reinvent themselves.
Here, reinvention, whether by con artist or cop, is here laden with serious consequence. Irving is nearly immobilized by guilt when he realizes his mission will destroy the decent, good-hearted Polito. DiMaso presents as a ruthless lawman but is driven by need, either for advancement (pitting him against a glum superior played beautifully by comic Louis C.K.) or for an unhealthy attraction to Sydney (pitting him against the physically unimpressive but dangerously resourceful Irving).
The wild card in all this is Irving's estranged wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), enlisted to socialize with the Politos. She is indeed a rough-edged charmer, but she is also the kind of woman who, when told not to put metal in a newfangled microwave oven, takes it as a personal challenge. Selfish and self-absorbed, Rosalyn may have been written as an avatar of the Me Generation, but Lawrence invests her with a ferocious Brooklyn charm, which explains how Rosalyn managed to ensnare a guy who would know a con when he saw one. She has her own gravitational pull.
The other stars acquit themselves as well. Bale, outfitted with bad glasses, an elaborate comb-over, a sad hairpiece and 20-30 pounds of added belly fat, continues to impress with his lack of vanity. Even sporting a fake genteel English accent, Amy Adams, once a chirping Disney princess, shows her sharp, steely side, as she did in Russell's The Fighter. And Bradley Cooper does his best work, pretty much nailing the preening peacock '70s male, including the neediness and desperation percolating beneath the ludicrous perm.