Masking baldness is a small ruse, to be sure, but it’s par for the course in David O. Russell’s (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook) loping, loopy and very funny caper set in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The story is loosely based on Abscam, a 1980 FBI sting operation that netted bribery convictions of a handful of U.S. congressmen. The key word, however, is “loosely.” The Abscam scandal merely provides a chessboard on which Russell and co-screenwriter Eric Singer can move around a motley group of cons, crooks and cops.
The swindling high life of Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and his business partner/mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, Man of Steel), comes to a screeching halt when they are busted trying to run a con on an undercover FBI agent. The arresting lawman, a manic macho man named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, The Hangover Part III), has greater ambitions. He coerces the pair to help ensnare the mayor of Camden, N.J., (Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy) and other politicians into taking bribes from a fictional sheik. Irving and Sydney grudgingly agree.
Alliances spring up and shift in what becomes a love triangle. Richie falls for Sydney, an ex-stripper who has convinced him and the world that she is British nobility. And Irving’s ostensibly street-smart toughness starts to soften when he sees that the pompadoured mayor isn’t your run-of-the-mill corrupt politician. Con games blur with the phenomenon of characters inventing themselves, whether that invention is as modest as a hairpiece or as elaborate as Sydney’s charade as Lady Edith. “My dream, more than anything else,” Sydney confides in voiceover, “was to become anyone other than who I was.”
Whoever these characters really are, or want to be, American Hustle is too humanistic not to celebrate their glorious instability. Irving, Sydney and Richie are emotionally volatile and altogether delusional about the degree of power they think they wield. Russell adores these people, and that affection extends to Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Irving’s scheming, irresponsible powder-keg wife.
Lawrence is hilarious, clearly having a ball as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive,” as Irving puts it. The cast is uniformly magnificent. Bale, sporting rose-tinted glasses and a potbelly, delivers one of his customarily amazing chameleon-like performances. Adams is a particular revelation, and not just because her period wardrobe is more than revealing. While Cooper and Renner are certainly solid, Bale, Adams and Lawrence all would seem to be shoo-ins for Oscar nominations.
With its constantly roving camerawork, voiceover narration from multiple characters, period detail and wall-to-wall pop music, American Hustle invites comparisons to other, greater movies with a similar vibe, especially Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. But Russell is no imitator. His characters are warmer, quirkier and a hell of a lot funnier. In a year of terrific movies, American Hustle is among the best of 2013.