Director and screenwriter David O. Russell, who was the mastermind behind last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” has brought a good deal of his repertory company back (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro) for his new film, “American Hustle,” which is inspired by some of the events from the late 1970s Abscam scandal. Abscam was an FBI sting operation that caught a number of congressmen taking bribes in return for questionable favors.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is that 30-something guy from the Bronx who owns a chain of dry-cleaning stores in New York City circa 1978. He is outwardly living the suburban dream married to a very attractive but somewhat neurotic woman, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), in a beautiful home 0n Nassau County’s North Shore. Rosalyn has a son, Danny, from a prior relationship, whom Irving loves so much that he legally adopts him.
What Rosalyn doesn’t know is that Irving is a con artist who loves to defraud whether it be via art forgeries or phony investment opportunities. While at a party, he meets a beautiful woman who intrigues him, Sydney (Amy Adams), who turns out to be even more larcenous than he is. The two are madly attracted to each other and together they wind up bilking even seemingly sophisticated folks. “It’s amazing how easy it is to get money from people when you first turn them down,” Irving says to the audience as he occasionally takes on the role of narrator the way Jeffrey Donovan did on the former USA Network series, “Burn Notice.” Clearly screenwriter David O. Russell knew that was Bernie Madoff’s modus operandi.
Things are going well until Irving and Sydney are arrested by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who poses as a wannabe investor. DiMaso offers them a deal that the bureau will drop all charges against them if they agree to help agents nail four other white-collar criminals who are bigger fish. DiMaso is so happy with their work that he decides he wants to set up an undercover operation to take down both big- name politicians and organized crime members.
Irving is a mastermind at pulling off scams, and he quickly realizes DiMaso is over his head and that his hubris may very well cost the dry cleaner and his loved ones their lives. His worst fears are realized when he finds himself in an Atlantic City backroom meeting with a feared Miami mob king, Victor Tellegio (an uncredited Robert De Niro), a guy who’s all for putting bullets in the back of the heads of anyone he dislikes.
Bale may have the most range of any actor working today. The Welshman who played the brooding and muscular lead in “Batman” packed on 50 pounds of paunch and was willing to have one of the worst comb-overs in film history to play Irving. Bale’s New York accent sounds realistic as opposed to stereotyped.
Adams shows that she can play a bad girl for a change while Lawrence is credible as a depressed housewife who knows that her husband has stopped loving her, which leads to some horrible decision-making on her part. Cooper shows that he can play a character who ostensibly seems to be the good guy in the film but whose principles are far more corrupt than those of Irving, whom we wind up rooting for against all logic.
“American Hustle” captures the horrible styles of the 1970s with emphasis on extremely wide ties, three-piece suits and hair that was either permed or puffed up into a pompadour. At least the film shied away from leisure suits.
One thing is for sure and the ’70s had some great music as the soundtrack includes tunes from America, Donna Summer, Todd Rundgren, Chicago, Paul McCartney, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and Steely Dan.
Don’t let the film’s running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes scare you. The time goes quickly. The interplay between the characters can be confusing at times, but that is to be expected when the script calls for everyone to be conning everyone else. Russell didn’t title it “American Hustle” for nothing.