David O. Russell has been directing movies for two decades, but it was only last year, in Silver Linings Playbook, that he broke through with his full, true filmmaking voice: madcap but grounded, working at a fever pitch of skewed passion. American Hustle, Russell’s brilliant, swirling amphetamine high of a movie about deep-dish chicanery in the late 1970s, makes good on Silver Linings’ promise. It’s a film of jaw-dropping virtuosity and pleasure, one that leaves you revved, enthralled, tickled, moved, and amazed. It’s as if the Scorsese of GoodFellas had been revived, full-throttle, only with a new subject: the hucksterism hiding in the shadows of middle-class America.
The central characters are a pair of con artists who are indefensible, and also irresistible. In the opening scene, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) plasters on his complex comb-over, and if we chuckle at the lowly kitschiness of his appearance, it also lets us know that Irving is a walking fraud. He’s a pinky-ring-wearing shyster from the Bronx who owns a chain of dry cleaners but specializes in fleecing people; he operates a loan business that takes $5,000 down payments and gives nothing back. At a Long Island pool party, Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a hot number who falls for him when they bond over their shared passion for Duke Ellington. It’s only later, though, when Sydney learns that Irving is a con man, that we see what kindred spirits they are. She puts on a faux-British accent and turns herself into ”Lady Edith Greensly,” a posh Londoner with banking connections.
They’re small-time operators, but it’s their karma to be nabbed by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a beady-eyed scrounger of an FBI agent. It’s the post-Watergate era, and Richie, rabid for a big corruption bust, coerces the two into joining a sting operation that’s just about as slovenly as their petty scams. It’s called Abscam, and it involves shady congressmen, a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) who wants to rebuild Atlantic City, actors pretending to be wealthy Arab sheikhs, and, of course, the Mob. American Hustle is based on a true story — or as a droll opening title puts it, ”Some of this actually happened.” There really was an Abscam, down to the fake sheikhs and a con man used to entrap congressmen (his name was Mel Weinberg). The thrill of American Hustle is that it takes the tacky desperation of this scheme — and of the whole Carter era — and fuses it with the spirit of our own madly scrambling moment, when the system once again seems rigged and people, increasingly, do whatever it takes to get by.
Watching American Hustle, you never know what’s coming next, and you can hardly wait to see it happen. The movie is a caper in which everyone is conning everyone, and the deepest cons are personal: As ”insurance,” Sydney pretends to fall for Richie, and we, along with Irving, are left wondering if she has. The movie’s exhilaration is in how Russell’s filmmaking fever lights up everything it touches. His pop-music cues come close to out-Scorsese-ing Scorsese, from the use of Steely Dan’s ”Dirty Work” to accompany Irving, Sydney, and Richie walking with a briefcase full of cash to a mash-up of Todd Rundgren and Donna Summer that enticingly evokes the rapture of disco clubbing. And if Russell’s perky camera zooms are a little too Marty, his knowledge of women is something else: He gets astounding performances from Adams, who is hell on wheels, and Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Irving’s manipulative wife with a crazy-sexy fury that dares to be toxic. As for Bale, he’s fantastic as a lying sleaze with a hidden heart. It’s one of the film’s rippling ironies that the FBI agent violates every code of decency to entrap crooks, and his prime target (that Jersey mayor) is the most honorable person on screen. In American Hustle, down is up, right is wrong, the con is the truth, and David O. Russell has become the most exciting filmmaker in America. A