David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) is not one of America’s most prolific directors – 5 years passed between Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, and another 6 passed between Huckabees and The Fighter – but he is definitely one of our most interesting and versatile contemporary filmmakers and, fortunately for us, he seems to be picking up the pace of his output. I was not as much a fan of Silver Linings Playbook as some, but I enjoyed a lot of it and was grateful – as always – for the uniqueness of his voice. Now – just one year later – he comes at us with an edgy, vibrant 1970s period crime thriller, American Hustle, filled with great performances and terrific filmmaking flourishes, which some film critics have already labeled as the best film of the year. I wouldn’t go quite that far in my own estimation of it, but it’s great fun and probably one of the most entertaining smart films of 2013.
American Hustle takes place in 1978, in New Jersey, and the director and production designer have a lot of fun, as you would expect, with clothing and hairstyles. This specificity of time and place, along with just the whiff of truth allowed by the opening title card – “some of this actually happened” – lends the film a colorful hallucinatory quality, as if half-remembered events had resurfaced in a dream one night after too much good food and wine. Does Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, remarkable) really wear his hair in such an outrageous combover? Does Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, in a rich and moving performance) really wear dresses open down to her navel? Does Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, marvelously high-strung) really put his hair in tight curlers every night for just the right permed look? Is the pompadour sported by Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, working hard, but miscast) really such a good thing for a politician? The decade of the ’70s certainly saw its share of over-the-top styles, but this film is designed more for satire than for verisimilitude – emphasis on “some of this actually happened” – letting us know right away that we’re in for a good time. What’s real and what’s not is part of the game. We’re dealing with con artists, after all.
That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine emotions at play. At the center of the story is a bona fide love story between Rosenfeld and Prosser. Rosenfeld, about 40 pounds too heavy (Bale actually gained that much weight for the part), nevertheless has something confident and sexy in him that charms former-stripper Prosser, and his plan to defraud local businessmen with the promise of future bank loans offers her the chance to play the part of an English woman with bank connections. Together, they dream of escaping their working-class roots and achieving the ultimate con of self-reinvention (even if Prosser’s accent is terrible).
When the film opens, Rosenfeld and Prosser are in the middle of a sting operation being run on local politicians by DiMaso, an FBI agent who had earlier arrested them (which we see, later, in flashback). Their sentence involves helping him wipe out corruption in New Jersey, an impossible task, and one that, as it turns out, is well beyond DiMaso’s limited capacities. At this point in the film, they’re estranged, and Prosser seems to be now leaning towards DiMaso, but we’re never quite sure where her true feelings lie, nor what she really wants, until the end. Which is part of what makes this film so much fun: we’re always guessing, and never sure about the plot twists to come.
The bulk of the story is, in fact, loosely based on the real Abscam sting run by the FBI in the late 1970s. Here, Rosenfeld and DiMaso cook up a plan to entrap state representatives, one senator, and Mayor Carmen Polito of Camden, using a fake Arab sheik (the “Abdul” of “Abscam” – no one said this was a politically correct operation) and a briefcase full of money. Why DiMaso is so obsessed with taking down corruption has more to do with the fact that he wants to make a name for himself (he still lives with his mother) – his own self-reinvention – than because that corruption is causing any real harm (at least as presented in the film). In the end, he’s no more honorable than the people he’s trying to take down.
The real revelation in the film is Amy Adams, an actress I have always admired, but who here dives deep into the heart of Prosser and shows us the strength, intelligence and desires of a real woman, even in those crazy outfits she wears. She manages to be formidable and vulnerable at the same time. When she finds herself in the same room as Rosenfeld’s ditzy and depressive wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, very good), there’s no question who is the better soulmate for the man. The film belongs to her, which is saying a lot, given how good most of her co-stars are.
My main beef with the film is that it loses energy in the final third, and would be better if it were 30 minutes shorter. Also, the way the plot is wrapped up at the end is just a little too pat. But it’s still a very good film, and so elaborately plotted that you’ll have a great time trying to stay ahead of the con.