David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” looks for truth behind some fundamental lies.
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.
Russell’s mesmerizing film is a simplified and admittedly fictional account of the FBI’s 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 Russell’s 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 Irving’s circle of rich friends. They join together to fleece desperate men a few thousand dollars at a time.
It’s 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 Richie’s 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 isn’t so much narration as it is testimony. The over-the-top wardrobe? It’s an essential part of the characterizations: Everyone is trying very, very hard to be someone else. Whether it’s Sydney baring everything from sternum to bellybutton in plunging, necklines or Richie at home in tight pink curlers, they’re all like teenagers seeking the right amount of cool.
The soundtrack is the best marriage of music and film since Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” or Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore.” Sydney and Irving bond over Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues.” Sydney and Richie go disco-dancing to Donna Summer’s trance-inducing “I Feel Love.” And Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s 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.
It’s almost as shocking to see Bale as the tubby Irving as it was to see him emaciated in “The Machinist,” but that’s nothing compared to the Welsh actor’s nearly flawless Brooklyn demeanor.
Adams is essentially playing three characters in one: the persona Sydney has created for herself, the persona she’s created for others and the person she really is, revealed in a makeup-free bedroom scene with Irving when it’s 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 Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”
And, truly, what more can be said about Lawrence? Whether it’s 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 King’s Speech.” And his fictional “Silver Linings Playbook” was more real than Ben Affleck’s based-on-a-true-story-wink-wink best-picture winner, “Argo.”
Time will tell if “American Hustle” is a stronger entry than this year’s eventual Oscar winner, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.
And that’s the truth.
Or at least my version of it.