We meet Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in a luxury Manhattan hotel suite gluing together his comb-over. It is just the first of many cons in a film where everyone is playing the person they’d rather be and no one’s words or appearance can be taken at face value. This is David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” an exquisite ode to the 1970s, crime films and the great Martin Scorsese, and is quite possibly the most entertaining film of the year.
Irving and partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are among the greatest con artists in the United States. They do mostly small-time illegal loans and fraudulent art dealings to remain under the radar of the feds. Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is the federal agent that poses as a mark and captures them. He offers them a prison term unless they agree to help bring down some politicians doing dirty dealings with the mob in the state of New Jersey.
The scheme based on Abscam, a real FBI operation that brought down six congressmen, a senator and a mayor. Irving buddies up with Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Atlantic City who is trying to drum up business for his city by welcoming gambling and casinos. The country is in the midst of a recession and Polito is one of many gregarious men that has to get his hands a little dirty in order to bring money to his community.
The force that threatens to break everything apart is Irving’s wife Rosalind (Jennifer Lawrence), a passive-aggressive trophy wife whose vindictiveness and charm are more dangerous to Irving and Sydney than the feds.
Russell’s film never judges any of its characters for their naiveté, double-crossings or flaws, but embraces all their quirks and idiosyncrasies to the point of genuine endearment. The film is stylishly designed with hair, makeup, set design and music that pay great homage to the era. The cinematography is vibrant and urgent, with definite cues to the work of Martin Scorsese.
The performances are central to the success and each of the principal actors is pitch perfect; Russell specifically cast the film to have all his actors go against type. Bale is both gluttonous and charming. Playing dumb is part of his genius act. Adams is electrifying – never has she played a woman so sexy and self-assured. Cooper is unpredictably explosive. Lawrence is fiercely hilarious. And Renner is both tender and crooked.
Everyone is a con artist in “American Hustle,” and when the big reveal is finally shown the audience never even knew it was being conned as well.