American Hustle: Sex, Scandal and Flat-Out Fun

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence form a fabulous ensemble cast in David O. Russell's dramatic comedy about the Abscam scandal

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Francois Duhamel / Columbia Pictures

Irving Rosenfeld approaches the bathroom mirror without bothering to ask who’s the fairest of them all. Paunchy of gut and bald on top, he knows he has work to do. Like a surgeon of sleaze, he glues a toupee thatch to his pate, arranges the lank hair on his temples across his skull and shellacs the whole mop with hair spray. Now he just needs to suck in his gut and don a three-piece suit and — voilà! — he’s 1970s New Jersey’s idea of a presentable businessman. Con man, that is: Irving sells art forgeries and takes money for investments in fantasy companies. Charles Ponzi might say, with a connoisseur’s appreciation, “Now that’s a schemer.”

You watch the first scene of American Hustle and think, That’s Christian Bale doing another of his life-imperiling body transformations. Bale lost 62 lb., from a muscular 182 to an emaciated 120, for the lead role in The Machinist; somehow he survived. This time he gained 40 lb. and walked with an older man’s slouch. For his trouble, he herniated two discs. He also crept inside Irving’s body and spirit to play — no, to convincingly be — a grifter working the long con. Doesn’t everybody, really, see through white lies and easy evasions? “We’re all conning ourselves one way or another,” Irving-Bale says, “just to get through life.”

The best way we can think of to get through 140 minutes of your life would be to see American Hustle, a balls-out story about political corruption that director and co-writer David O. Russell turned into a crazy, conniving comedy: history replayed as sparkling farce. Russell reunited the star pairs from his last two films — Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook — then Cuisinarted the romantic alliances until everyone had a chance to get screwed one way or another. The New York Film Critics Circle recently acknowledged the toxic, tonic splendor of American Hustle by giving it prizes for Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Lawrence) and Best Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer and Russell). These should be the first of many awards from now until Oscar night.

(MORE: American Hustle takes aim at the Oscars)

The movie opens with a title card that reads, “Some of this actually happened,” and concludes, in the last of the end credits, with the disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction.” In other words, trust no one in the movie to give you the facts, and don’t trust the movie, either. (Singer’s original script had the more accurate title American Bullshit.) It’s a semi-true take on Abscam, the infamous sting operation in which the FBI, beginning in 1978, videotaped politicians who accepted bribes for political favors. A daring bluff that led to the conviction of U.S. Senator Harrison “Pete” Williams and six other members of Congress, Abscam was the Argo ruse — but in the U.S., not in Iran, and with a nonexistent hotel instead of a fake movie as the bait. It also lacks anyone that Hollywood might identify as a hero.

In the Russell-Singer comb-over of the facts, Irving juggles the demands of his mouthy wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and his sham-English girlfriend Sydney (Adams) while reluctantly cooperating with an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Cooper), in the proposed sting of Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and other Jersey officials. In a movie with four narrators, the point of view is necessarily skewed, and the viewer’s sympathy shifts as Richie falls for Sydney, Irving begins sympathizing with Carmine, and Rosalyn fools around with Mafia cutie Pete Musane (Jack Huston, late of Boardwalk Empire). “Everybody at the bottom crosses paths,” Sydney observes, “in pools of desperation.” But the real bottom-feeder, the most ruthless, frantic manipulator may be Richie the Fed.

(MORE: Corliss on David O. Russell’s The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook)

That opening scene with Irving at the mirror hints that American Hustle might settle for mocking the ’70s, the ultimate bad-hair decade and, for metropolitan New York City, a scream of bankruptcy and graffiti. The film does make fond fun of the music, clothes and décor, which earn kudos for production designer Judy Becker, costumer Michael Wilkinson and music supervisor Susan Jacobs. There is a disco scene and that ’70s marvel the microwave. (Told not to put metal inside her new “science oven,” Rosalyn promptly inserts a casserole with tinfoil, and the thing explodes.) But all these references are in the service of channeling the flailing energy of that time.

This was the last New York City decade defined not by the wretched excesses of the superrich — the scam artists on Wall Street — but by the ferocious, occasionally criminal strivings of the middle and lower classes. These snarling underdogs defined New York City movies too. Though American Hustle resembles Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino in certain particulars of plot and milieu (but not in its visual style, which is more functional than Scorsese-ecstatic), the real touchstones for its outer-borough shenanigans are Saturday Night Fever and the Sidney Lumet films Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon: manic street operas, in which the arias were Italians and Jews shouting at one another. (Russell is Jewish on his father’s side, Italian on his mother’s.) The film’s masterly organization of chaos and intelligence is a reminder that comedy is just tragedy, but faster, and it underlines the slick timidity of what passes for movie comedy today.

(MORE: a tribute to director Sidney Lumet)

The real Abscam story was no less strange. The Irving character, Melvin Weinberg, was indeed a grifter who considered himself a world-class actor. “Playing someone else still comes easy,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “It’s my life.” One of his meatiest roles was fronting the Abscam sting in order to avoid a prison sentence on 10 counts of fraud. Mel did have a girlfriend, the English-born Evelyn Knight, and a wife, Marie. (Mel was 54 in 1978; Marie 46.) During his time testifying at the trials, in 1979, Mel moved with Marie to Tequesta Hills, Fla., secretly setting up Evelyn in a nearby condo. Boisterous marital confrontations ensued, and Mel moved in with Evelyn. In 1981, when Marie sued for divorce, Mel asked her to delay the action until he concluded negotiations on an Abscam movie, Moon Over Miami, to be directed by Louis Malle and starring John Belushi as Mel.

On Jan. 21, 1982, the ABC news program 20/20 aired a segment in which correspondent Tom Jarriel quizzed Mel about allegations that he kept gifts he was supposed to pass on to public officials. When he denied this, Jarriel showed him a videotape of Marie, in her kitchen, turning a microwave to show that the serial numbers had been removed. Mel spumed his denials, unconvincingly. A week later, Marie was found hanged in a condo adjacent to her own, with a note that read, “My sin was wanting to love and be loved, nothing more.” Mel’s eloquent elegy to his late wife: “She was a cuckoo.” On March 5, Belushi died, scotching the movie project. Two days after that, Mel married Evelyn.

(MORE: our 1980 Abscam cover story by subscribing to TIME)

That story would make a compelling movie as well. American Hustle is less an exposé than a character study of people who may not have much character but do live by their own odd ethical code. Take Sydney, for example. The duplicity that is a means to an end for Irving is her golden goal. “My dream, more than anything, was to become anyone other than who I was,” she tells Irving as they make out among revolving racks of clothes at one of the dry-cleaning stores he owns. She left Phoenix, adopted what she thought sounded like a posh English accent and, perhaps in tribute to Barbara Stanwyck’s aristocratic alter ego in The Lady Eve, called herself Lady Edith Greenley.

Sporting couture with V-necklines that plunge to the navel, Sydney is a moll’s vision of class, a bland blonde transformed into a vixen by her own iron will. She demands the same commitment from Irving, telling him, “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.” Adams, we’re convinced, can do anything: comedy (Junebug), drama (The Master), musical theater (Into the Woods at New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park). This year she aced Lois Lane in Man of Steel and the best-friend role in Spike Jonze’s her.

(MORE: Corliss on Amy Adams in Spike Jonze’s her)

She carries the first half of American Hustle, working in tones subtler but no less intense than those of the other stars. She’s amazing in a scene where Sydney confesses to Irving that she’s not English royalty. Emptying herself of affectation, Adams keeps swerving in and out of her Brit accent. By the end, her eyes are filled with tears that, damn it, she will not let drop. Even when losing control, a lady must keep her poise.

Lawrence’s Rosalyn — the woman Irving leaves at home, the better to frolic with Sydney — is no lady. But she has the con artist’s knack of getting what she wants by threat, sex appeal or whine; Irving calls her “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” Playing a woman who in real life was twice her age, the 23-year-old Lawrence makes Rosalyn a hot number, as explosive as aluminum foil in a microwave. Rosalyn describes the odor of her nail polish as “sweet and sour, like flowers, but also garbage.” That’s how Lawrence plays her: she exudes the heavy, intoxicating scent of danger. And when this ignored wife realizes her power to put the kibosh on Irving, and by extension the whole Abscam sting, she blossoms or festers into a creature worthy of a Mafia man’s ardor.

(MORE: Laura Stampler on Jennifer Lawrence, Your Imaginary Best Friend)

Heroically stolid in the Hunger Games movies, appealingly morose in Silver Linings Playbook — and in those films a treat to watch as she expressed complex emotions with virtually no facial tics or sweeping gestures — Lawrence gives this movie’s most overtly comic performance, lending Rosalyn a body and dynamism rarely seen since Judy Holliday played the not-so-dumb blonde Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, 63 years ago. She doesn’t so much steal the second half of American Hustle as own it. Adams effectively passes the baton to her, in a superb acting ensemble dominated by the actresses.

We do not mean to demean the male leads. Cooper, a hoot in hair rollers, summons the ferrety fury of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, ups the IQ and applies the razor’s edge of satire to Richie’s big dreams. Renner plays Carmine (a sweetened version of real Camden mayor and New Jersey state senator Angelo Errichetti) as a people’s politician, an idealist who’ll take money in the casino deal to bring thousands of jobs to Atlantic City. The surprise here is that Renner, so impressive in The Hurt Locker but largely stranded and cramped in tough-guy hero roles ever since, finds Carmine’s soul through delicate comic timing. No wonder Irving feels sympathy for the guy — he’s less a villain than a gregarious putz. (Also excellent: Louis CK as Richie’s FBI boss and Robert De Niro in an unbilled role as Mafia fixer Victor Tellegio.)

(MORE: Our praise for Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker)

Reveling in its ’70s milieu and in the eternal abrasion of sexy women and covetous men, American Hustle is an urban eruption of flat-out fun — the sharpest, most exhilarating comedy in years. Anyone who says otherwise must be conning you.