- - Thursday, December 19, 2013

David O. Russell’s bold, exhilarating “American Hustle,” a fictionalized look at the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s, has to be considered alongside “House of Games” and “The Usual Suspects” as one of the great con game movies, as well as one of the most compulsively watchable films of recent memory.  

Stylistically, “American Hustle” owes a great debt to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” with occasional voiceover advancing the action without seeming intrusive, and salvos of period music that announce narrative shifts the way a brass fanfare heralds the arrival of royalty. Mr. Russell has fun with period details, but without mocking his characters. Cars are long and muscular. No exposed patch of chest hair is complete without a gleaming medallion. Women  strut in shimmering one-piece jumpers that leave little to the imagination. It’s not mere set dressing — instead these details speak to the aspirations of the characters, and spotlight their vanities.

Con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) has an eye for human weakness, and he’s built up a small but successful enterprise in taking money from wealthy people with the promise of greater riches down the road. On a professional level Irving is scrupulous, if that is the right word, in sizing up his marks. His personal life, however, is another story. His wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is manipulative, depressive, and delusional — a dangerous combination for a career criminal who relies on the discretion of his intimates. He’s bound to her out of loyalty and a sense of obligation to her son, whom he has adopted as his own. His mistress and business partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) dreams of making a family with Irving and his son, once Rosalyn is out of the picture. These bourgeois fantasies may seem a bit strange for a pair of criminals accustomed to living on the edge, but they are just another off-kilter element of a movie constructed to keep the viewer guessing.

The biggest hustler of all is FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a small-time functionary who stings Irving and Sydney in an undercover operation, and convinces them to work with the Bureau to bring in bigger fish. Richie lives with his mom, has a fiance he barely acknowledges, and teases his straight hair into tiny ringlets with the aid of pin-sized curlers. He’s puffed up and ridiculous, and without self-awareness — basically the antithesis of a working con man. And therein lies the tale — can Irving and Sydney work their way out from under Richie’s thumb, without getting into too much trouble?

Mr. Bale juggles the competing demands of his role magnificently, and it’s not too hard to imagine him pulling off a serious con in real life. He manages to convey in the depths of his gaze his total belief in whatever he is saying at any given moment — a neat trick considering he is playing double and triple games with nearly everyone in his life. Miss Lawrence shines as the infuriating but hilarious Rosalyn — a powder keg of a woman who manages to find divine intent behind her every mistake. Mr. Cooper shows his knack for playing troubled, compulsive characters in his portrayal of a rule-breaking cop whose outsized ambitions keep getting in the way, as he tries to escalate their case into a grand probe of political corruption and organized crime. 

Viewers who remember the outlines of the Abscam case will enjoy watching the pieces fall into place, but the movie may work even better for those laboring in total ignorance of the scandal, because of the liberties Mr. Russell takes with the history.

★★★★ 

TITLE:American Hustle

CREDITS: Directed by David O. Russell, written by Eric Singer and Mr. Russell.

RATING:R for sexual situations and profanity

RUNNING TIME:138 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

 

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