A con man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), along with his seductive British partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
In his quest to make a name for himself DiMaso pushes the duo into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.
Sometimes, when adapting history for the big screen, a few fabrications are required. For example, Irving Rosenfeld, the schlubby Bronx huckster Bale plays. A consummate swindler with a fondness for jewel-toned velvet jackets and an outrageously bad toupee, the character is inspired by real-life con man Melvin Weinberg.
American Hustle is a wild, euphoric exercise in creative extrapolation. A fictionalized account of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 70’s and early 80’s, the movie centres on Rosenfeld, who finds himself at the mercy of hapless agent Richie DiMaso who is determined to make his reputation by nabbing dirty politicians and possibly mobsters.
After DiMaso apprehends Rosenfeld and his assistant, Sydney Prosser for a scam loan operation, he coerces the duo into using their con skills to assist in a sting designed to snare politicians for accepting bribes. Things become complicated though, when DiMaso develops feelings for Prosser and Rosenfeld’s neurotic young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) inserts herself into the operation.
Bale’s immersive approach to character has come to define him as an actor. By the time he stepped on stage to claim his first Oscar for his portrayal of a twitchy, crack-addled former boxer in Russell’s 2010 drama, The Fighter, the actor had long since garnered a reputation for his willingness to wrestle his body into submission to more perfectly disappear into another man’s skin.
That grand, bloated belly is the first bit of Rosenfeld that audiences see when the movie opens, as the character, shirt unbuttoned, stands in front of a mirror, carefully teasing and spraying his meticulously constructed comb-over into place. His appearance is so incongruous with his ability to bluff, dupe and deceive.
The movie’s ineffable spirit might have been amplified by David O. Russell’s method of direction. The filmmaker had rewritten an Eric Singer script that recounted the Abscam sting in a much more straightforward fashion, yet he still encouraged the actors to experiment to find ways to fine tune scenes on the movie’s Boston set.
The film is set in 1970’s New York, a period that Russell and his team recreate in nostalgic and exaggerated detail. All his protagonists change their costumes constantly (that’s part of their disguise). The men wear flared trousers, jackets with huge lapels, fat knotted ties and multi-coloured shirts. The women, Amy Adams in particular, cultivate a look that is part Studio 54, part Annie Hall. Everyone goes to great lengths to perm their hair. The soundtrack is full of signature 1970’s songs, everything from Elton John to Donna Summer.
Irving and Prosser are petty swindlers; they take money from clients for services that they simply don’t provide. Their secret is to trade on their exclusivity. They make a great fuss about turning down potential customers. This makes the customers all the more desperate to hand over their money.
The beauty of this movie is that you’re never quite sure where the deception begins and ends. This is something the characters themselves don’t fully understand. Irving’s phenomenal powers of dissembling simply evaporate when he is confronted by his needy and manipulative wife Rosalyn, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate” as he calls her. She won’t give him a divorce and has a hold over him based on his guilt over their son and his continuing desire for her.
The irony is that the New Jersey politician (Jeremy Renner) is the most upstanding character in the movie, even if he is prepared to work with the mob to help rebuild Atlantic City.
Russell understands that professional con artists are simply doing the same thing as everyone else but in a more self-conscious and calculated way. As in his two previous films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell reveals himself here as a supremely gifted director. He is a film-maker who gives his cast extraordinary license and is rewarded by performances that are both flamboyant and full of guile. It is apparent that his actors now have full confidence in him. They wouldn’t take such risks or push their characters to such extremes if they did not.
In The Fighter, Christian Bale played a hyperactive, wire-thin boxer-turned-trainer. Here, he has morphed into the wondrously sleazy and overweight con-artist ‘hero’ Rosenfeld. Bale’s Rosenberg is as far removed from the Batman action-hero mould as can be imagined. He has a weak heart and gets immediately out of breath if he has so much as to break into a run.
Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as the neurotic housewife with a knack for destruction. It’s a funny and acerbic performance. There is a tremendous moment, seemingly partially improvised, in which she encounters her nemesis Sydney in the ladies’ bathroom and reacts to being lectured by kissing her aggressively on the lips.
Her philosophy on life is taken from her favourite cosmetics, which she discovers to her delight are partly made with dung. As she puts it, “The best perfumes in the world are laced with something nasty.” However, the scene in which we see her hoovering her apartment to the accompaniment of ‘Live and Let Die’ is wildly indulgent. Russell’s directorial approach is stylised and deliberately exaggerated.
Amid the fakery and masquerade, Robert De Niro introduces a genuine sense of menace as the obnoxious old mobster the con artists need to bribe as part of their biggest scam.
Some critics have said that the glory of the film lies in its performances, not its narrative structure. I disagree; I think that this movie has it all. Russell’s movie is witty, engaging and unbelievably intelligent which is not commonplace within this genre.
By Ruth Walker