Big hair. Big mouths. Big scams.
Everything about American Hustle, David O. Russell's wild and woolly take on the late-'70s FBI sting operation code-named Abscam, is big.
And the biggest thing of all is the love story that beats at the heart of this rollicking disco-era ensemble piece. When Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist with a dry-cleaning business on the side, and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a grifter who slips into an upperclass-y British alter ego, meet at a pool party, their eyes lock. They bond over Duke Ellington. Never mind that he's married, with a son. Or that she's on the prowl for her next mark. They're inevitable.
And nothing - not the FBI, not a lunatic wife (Jennifer Lawrence, huffing and puffing and blowing things down), not the threat of jail - is going to get in their way.
Except, perhaps, a hustling G-man who curls his hair and still lives with his mom. Bradley Cooper's Agent Richie DiMaso is a crusading cop with a crackpot scheme: to lure a slew of greedy pols into accepting bribes offered up by a phony Arab sheik. And to pull this stunt off, he recruits - well, coerces - Irving and Sydney, as "Lady Edith," to apply their skills on the government's behalf. A business arrangement, and maybe a love triangle, ensues.
Russell not only has gone back in time (cue Donna Summer and ELO), he has also gone and made a movie that feels like it's of that time. Stylistically and spiritually, American Hustle belongs in the same camp as vintage Scorsese and Saturday Night Fever. It's not just the cars and clothes and furnishings that say Jimmy Carter is president, it's the filmmaking - the kind of exhilarating filmmaking in which character trumps plot. Sure, there are layers of chicanery and double-crossing going on, but the director is more interested in what his cast does with that plot than what the plot does with them.
And so Bale, who played the meth-head mess of a pugilist sibling in Russell's The Fighter, transforms himself into a flabby, toupee-topped hustler, dealing in forged art and investment fraud - a corpulent charmer with serious comb-over issues. Adams, his Fighter castmate, is a small-town girl with big-city dreams. Her Sydney is cool and shrewd - and hard to rattle, even when you throw her in a cell.
From his Silver Linings Playbook, Russell re-ups Cooper, who plays the upstart Fed, Richie, with furious intensity - and with a perm. That Cooper can keep a straight face with all the hair and beard and wardrobe stuff going on is a testament to his thespian chops. On top of that, he brings a storm of angst and ambition to the table.
And speaking of coiffures, Lawrence, as Irving's chain-smoking, neurotic missus, Rosalyn, wears her hair in an exotic pile - and wears her husband down with her craziness. "She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate," Bale's Irving voice-overs, bringing his art-world expertise to bear on an assessment of his spouse.
Put these four together in various combinations and circumstances - and add Jeremy Renner as the mayor of Camden, Jack Huston as a debonair mobster, and Louis CK as Richie's put-upon FBI boss - and you have acting fireworks. Things go kaboom in just about every scene - brilliantly.
"Some of this actually happened" is the game declaration that pops up on the opening credits (and some of it actually happened in Philadelphia, though not in this movie), but Russell and his cowriter, Eric Singer, have taken plenty of liberties, too. So Abscam's Angelo Errichetti, the real mayor of Camden caught in the Abscam web, becomes Renner's Carmine Polito. And Melvin Weinberg, the convicted con artist hired by the FBI, becomes Bale's Irving Rosenfeld, and so on. . . . The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the convicted.
But that works fine. American Hustle is a movie built on that cornerstone of the American Dream, reinvention. If you're not happy with who you are, or who people think you are, then go ahead and become somebody else. Anything to survive - and thrive.
American Hustle **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by David O. Russell. With Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner. Distributed by Columbia Pictures/Sony.
Running time: 2 hours, 18 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, drugs, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters