American Hustle Review

David O. Russell’s kaleidoscopic take on the late ‘70s ABSCAM operation is fueled by a stellar cast and those eye-popping outfits.

American Hustle opens with an extended scene of con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) patiently gluing a toupee onto his bald scalp and then arranging it with the rest of his floppy hair in a comb-over for the ages. The scene is meaningful for two reasons: It’s one of the last times anyone in director David O. Russell’s sometimes madcap, sometimes melancholy satire will exhibit anything resembling patience, and it’s also symbolic of the way that nearly every character in the film hides their true selves, often barely holding their constructed identities together. American Hustle is a heavily fictionalized (“Some of these things actually happened”) account of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, which ensnared a U.S. senator, six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a New Jersey state senator and others in a scheme involving a fake Middle Eastern sheikh, government bribes and high-level corruption. The film’s early scenes follow Irving – who’s deceptively smart under that thing on his head, but also oddly genial about the low-level scams he pulls involving fraudulent loans and phony art – as he meets the apparent love of his life and immediate partner in grift, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who catches the marks with a fetching fake British accent and a series of severely plummeting necklines. Irving’s biggest problem at this point is that he also has a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who doles out pleasure and pain in equal doses, the latter largely through her unpredictable way with words and frequent accidental attempts to burn down their house. But all that recedes into the background (for a while) when Irving and Sydney are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, his tight curls almost as fabulous as Bale’s hairpiece), who offers them immunity if they help him land a few bigger fish.
 Those fish start out as other con men, but the trail soon leads our unlikely trio into a larger, more dangerous world of sleaze and shady activities involving state and federal government officials, local New Jersey powerbrokers and the mafia (embodied like no one else can by a cameo star). DiMaso sees the operation as his path to Bureau glory; Sydney and Rosalyn, who ends up getting unwittingly involved as well, see it as a way out of their dead-end lives; and Irving sees it at first as a simple means to get back to the life he enjoyed, but is soon the only one who realizes that things are spinning out of control. Almost every character in American Hustle is in over their heads, which makes the outlandish ‘70s hairstyles they all employ throughout so rich in symbolism. The culture then was in the early stages of “me, me, me” and “more, more, more” (which we’re seeing the even uglier ramifications of nowadays), and everything from Sydney’s sex-bomb outfits to Richie’s stratospheric demands and near-psychotic behavior (he beats his own boss with a phone at one point) are indicative of the almost desperate grasp of materialism that dominated the era. And no one, save except perhaps for Irv as a scam artist turned sorta-hero, ever stops to reflect on what they’re doing. By rewriting Eric Warren Singer’s script to replace the real-life figures with fictional versions – also an apt commentary on the characters’ constant reinvention of themselves – Russell simultaneously liberates the material while diluting it. Above all, American Hustle is fun. Every single actor has a blast; the women look sensational, and the costumes and period details are a riot. But by taking it out of the real world, so to speak, Russell lessens the power of what ultimately happened as a result of Abscam: The further disillusionment with our own government just a few years after Watergate and the tragedy of ruined lives (the latter touched upon by Jeremy Renner’s well-intentioned but hapless mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito).