Director David O. Russell is best known for last year’s Silver Linings Playbook and the under-the-radar The Fighter, modestly ambitious films that delivered deftly realized romance and familiar stories told well. American Hustle is something altogether its own. It’s a big, sprawling ensemble film that tells a complicated, layered gangster story. It owes much in terms of style to the best by Martin Scorcese, particularly Goodfellas. And it is much more ambitious and thematically broad than Russell’s other films. By tweaking the history the Abscam sting operation in the 1970s, which led to one of the largest political corruption busts in U.S. history, Russell creates a sprawling American story about ambition, morality, survival, family, politics, and greed.
At the center is Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, a two-bit conman who discovers a criminal mastermind in his mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Together they run a string of dry cleaners, while dealing forged art work and running a loan shark scam on the side. Their operation comes crashing down when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts the couple, but the bust is where the film takes off. DiMaso gets Sydney and Irving to agree to help the FBI nab a few of their associates. They are only supposed to be signed up to help score four arrests, but DiMaso gets greedy. He doesn’t just want conmen, he wants to grab some politicians. Irving doesn’t want any part of it, and he proves a dubious voice of moral trepidation (“Just as everyone is starting to trust politicians again,” he protests, invoking the lingering languor of Watergate). But it doesn’t matter. Irving and Sydney are along for DiMaso’s ride, and the tempestuous, coke-sniffing, firecracker is on a rampage, determined to prove he’s someone.
American Hustle slips into a game of cons and re-cons that scrabbles our apprehension of the truth. Sydney may be seducing – or may be falling in love – with DiMaso. Irving may be working on an out for him and Sydney, or he may be trying to get his son and wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) out of the situation. And while Sydney toys with DiMaso, Irving falls for Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor who is roped into the FBI’s sting. He’s a good-natured, neighborhood guy, who, like Irving, is from the Bronx. And even though Irving is supposed to be working him, he becomes the man’s friend. That sympathetic involvement threatens to pull Irving into the undertow of the sting.
There are times when American Hustle feels very much like a Scorsese knock-off, or reminiscent of another Scorsese heir, P.T. Anderson. The phenomenal cast, particularly the supporting roles, help buoy a film driven by a relentless pace and sharp screenwriting. Cooper is particularly strong in the film, and his maniacal efforts to prove to his Brooklyn mother that he’s someone recall Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon. Lawrence’s Rosalyn is a pitch-perfect Queens gal, and when it comes to her marriage and men’s emotions, she may be the most natural con of them all. Even comedian Louis C.K., who already impressed earlier in the year in a small role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, is strong as the beaten-down FBI supervisor who tries – and fails – to keep DiMaso under wraps.
At the start of American Hustle, the film winks at its “based on a true story” status with a rephrase: “some of this actually happened.” It’s a more honest way of linking the story back to the actual Abscam sting, because Russell and his co-scriptwriter Eric Singer have made key changes that deepen the dramatic complexity of the story. Like Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle is another film this year that sets the traps and pitfalls of American ambition and greed. In Russell’s film, the intent is to blur our perspectives, first between the moral and ethical legitimacy of government and law enforcement, and then the very narrative of the movie itself. The result is an appealing film, but a bleak vision. There are no heroes in American Hustle, only appealing personalities, and the moral baseline isn’t political ideals, the rule of law, or personal integrity, but wit — the ability to out hustle and out scam. It’s a story close to the American temperament, as old as the purchasing of Manhattan for $24.