David O. Russells American Hustle looks for truth behind some fundamental lies.
By DAVID FRESE
The Kansas City Star
Lies we tell other people, lies we tell ourselves, the lie of the American Dream. Hustle is also about the lie behind any movie that claims to be based on a true story, opening with the title card Some of this actually happened.
And some of it surely did.
Russells mesmerizing film is a simplified and admittedly fictional account of the FBIs Abscam (short for Arab Scam) sting arrests of the late 1970s and early 80s, which netted a slew of congressmen (most of them Democrats) for taking bribes and peddling influence.
At the center of the arrests was con man Mel Weinberg, who helped the Feds orchestrate many of their operations.
In Russells version, the con man is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, disappearing into his role as a potbellied, balding swindler). He finds a soul mate in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a small-town girl who has worked her way from exotic dancer into Irvings circle of rich friends. They join together to fleece desperate men a few thousand dollars at a time.
Its a sweet little operation, until FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) arrests Sydney for fraud. Facing some serious time, Sydney and Irving are offered a deal if they help nail the bigger crooks, the public officials susceptible to corruption.
Among those in Richies crosshairs is Atlantic City Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Even though Carmine initially walks away from a bribe, Irving persuades him to overlook some shady dealings because his city and state will benefit.
Carmine may be the closest thing Hustle has to a good guy. But even though his intentions are noble, the small-time politician is no different from everyone else in the film. They all want to be something they likely will never be.
Though the maneuvering almost descends into tedium at times, Russell has created a dense and operatic portrait in which nothing is as it seems.
That voiceover in the first third of the film? It isnt so much narration as it is testimony. The over-the-top wardrobe? Its an essential part of the characterizations: Everyone is trying very, very hard to be someone else. Whether its Sydney baring everything from sternum to bellybutton in plunging, necklines or Richie at home in tight pink curlers, theyre all like teenagers seeking the right amount of cool.
The soundtrack is the best marriage of music and film since Paul Thomas Andersons Boogie Nights or Wes Andersons Rushmore. Sydney and Irving bond over Duke Ellingtons Jeeps Blues. Sydney and Richie go disco-dancing to Donna Summers trance-inducing I Feel Love. And Jennifer Lawrence, as Irvings manic-depressive, passive-aggressive wife Rosalyn, belts a delirious version of Wings Live and Let Die. From Electric Light Orchestra to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the music adds to every moment see this movie in a theater with a great sound system.
But as good as these choices might be, they are all secondary to the performances.
Its almost as shocking to see Bale as the tubby Irving as it was to see him emaciated in The Machinist, but thats nothing compared to the Welsh actors nearly flawless Brooklyn demeanor.
Adams is essentially playing three characters in one: the persona Sydney has created for herself, the persona shes created for others and the person she really is, revealed in a makeup-free bedroom scene with Irving when its clear they have to pull off their greatest con ever.
As Richie, Cooper is so crazed with envy, lust, wrath and the other deadly sins he may be more insane than his lovestruck obsessive in Russells Silver Linings Playbook.
And, truly, what more can be said about Lawrence? Whether its a hate-filled surprise kiss or a single tear bursting forth, her performance is riveting. Her Rosalyn is a fully formed human being not just the low-class harpy caricature she could have been.
In 1999, Russell gave us the excellent Three Kings, a heist movie set in the first Iraq War starring a pre-A-list George Clooney. It somehow escaped Oscar attention, despite being more relevant than the eventual best picture, American Beauty, another baby boomer wallow in middle-class male fantasy. His Oscar-nominated 2010 film The Fighter was a stronger contender than the winner, The Kings Speech. And his fictional Silver Linings Playbook was more real than Ben Afflecks based-on-a-true-story-wink-wink best-picture winner, Argo.
Time will tell if American Hustle is a stronger entry than this years eventual Oscar winner, but its fascinating nonetheless.
And thats the truth.
Or at least my version of it.
To contact arts and entertainment editor David Frese, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 816-234-4463. Twitter: DavidFrese.