Review: American Hustle

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American Hustle

The Abscam sting operation is an unlikely inspiration for a film.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the bizarre public corruption investigation (it involved an FBI employee posing as a Middle Eastern sheikh) targeted more than 30 public officials. A dozen or so were convicted of bribery and conspiracy, including a U.S. senator and six members of the House of Representatives. The busts were shocking when they went down, but Abscam isn't exactly a household name more than 30 years later. Is a long-ago political scandal still the stuff of a compelling movie?

In the hands of David O. Russell, it is. Well, it's the stuff of an entertaining romp, at least. Abscam is the basis for Russell's American Hustle, a film faithful to the general gist of the scandal (the FBI recruits a two-bit hustler to help take down corrupt politicians in a bribery sting) while playing fast and loose with almost all the historical details.

The real-life hustler was Melvin Weinberg; in the film, he's Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, who deserves a special Oscar for best comb-over), a slick con man who fleeces gambling addicts and others in desperate need of cash by promising them phony loans. When an FBI sting nabs Rosenfeld's seductive partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), the two agree to help FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) pull off an elaborate sting involving New Jersey power brokers, the mafia, and politicians at all levels of government. (Like the real Abscam, the hustle involves a phony sheikh.)

Further explanation of the story would risk spoilers and isn't really necessary; it's enough to say that Rosenfeld and Prosser find themselves trapped in a dangerous con game far beyond their comfort level. Also caught in the web are the earnest but shady mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), and Rosenfeld's loose-cannon wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whose involvement is not very helpful to the Feds.

American Hustle is best enjoyed not as a whole, but as a collection of over-the-top characters and over-the-top scenes, many of which are hilarious. The story is a breathless, sometimes confusing caper that adds up to less than the sum of its colorful threads and amusing asides. But this is okay; American Hustle is so delightfully cockeyed that its lack of depth and borderline incoherence are more than tolerable.

American Hustle is in every way a triumph of style over substance, the rare half-baked movie that skillfully distracts us from its half-bakedness with genuine oddball fun. Rather than developing into believable people, the lead characters seem to be competing for some kind of quirkiness award; this can make for a very annoying movie if not done well, but the leads are all so charmingly peculiar that they're very appealing. For example, when we see the paunchy, polyester-clad Rosenfeld carefully gluing and styling his hair to hide his bald pate, do we really care if there isn't much there there?

Add a killer Seventies soundtrack and a mountain of period kitsch, and American Hustle may be the most rollicking good time you'll have at the movies this year. It's a cinematic Good Times Van (those who survived the Seventies may remember the garish party rooms on wheels) with an amped, stylish vibe and plenty of sexual heat, although the sexuality can be too goofy to be very sexy.

I'm obviously a fan of American Hustle, but I won't say it's Russell's best work (Silver Linings Playbook -- a movie with much more heart -- gets my vote), nor is it in league with this year's best films. It rambles and loses focus sometimes, and some of its excesses are too, well, excessive. The visuals and soundtrack sometimes compete for our attention rather than complement each other. (If the characters are in a quirkiness contest, the film's sights and sounds are in a coolness contest.) And in most of American Hustle, there are only two moods -- combative and slightly less combative. The constant bickering and struggling can be tiring, although the combat is usually very funny.

But I quibble. From its grandly comic performances -- Bale may be unforgettable as Rosenfeld, but Lawrence's Rosalyn is my favorite -- to its proud disdain of inhibition, American Hustle is a hoot. It's about as subtle as Sydney Prosser's plunging necklines, but blatancy has seldom been so much fun.