“American Hustle” opens with a scene showing Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) performing his morning ritual, which includes fortifying the sparse patch of filaments sprouting from the top of his head. That monumentally Trump-esque undertaking of coiffure engineering sets the tone for the serio-zany tale that follows. As a graphic at the start of the film declares, “Some of this actually happened.”
For the next two hours-plus, director/co-writer David O. Russell shuffles appearance, reality and time frames with the dexterity of a professional card shark. By the time the credits roll, the film's few plausibility blips are mostly forgotten and swept away by a wave of cinematic virtuosity – not to mention the wonderful ensemble of actors breathing life into Eric Singer and Russell’s highly original screenplay.
Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a character very loosely based on convicted con-man Melvin Weinberg, who turned FBI informant during the ABSCAM operation of the late 70s into the early ‘80s.
Special federal agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) has busted Irving and girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) for fraud. Using classic interrogation techniques – threatening hard prison time, separating the suspects, playing them off against each other – DiMaso coerces the couple to cooperate.
DiMaso is overambitious, on a short fuse, and has a bad coke habit. Like Irving, he’s also dealing with a high-maintenance hairdo. His relatively small-time pinch soon leads to a much bigger can of fish, including mob guys, Atlantic City casinos awaiting permits, and Jeremy Renner as New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito, sporting one of the most fabulous pompadours you'll ever see.
Rotating sheikh impersonators – one Hispanic, the other Asian Indian – are recruited for the sting. The rest of the film shows the before-and-after of how everyone ended up meeting in a five-star hotel suite infested with surveillance equipment.
In a voice-over, Irving talks about how he decided what he wanted to do when he grew up. He watched his father work hard, play by the rules, pay his taxes – and get nowhere. Irving refused to be a sucker. He set up a string of dry cleaning businesses, where the real laundering involves money from lucrative loan-sharking and high-end art forging.
Irving is living the high-life. It’s raining money. Sex, drugs and all that jazz abound – there’s always a party going on. Then he meets Sydney, takes her home and puts Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues” – the definitive 1956 Newport Jazz Festival version – on the stereo.
“Who starts a song like that?” he asks. “It’s magic,” Sydney responds.
Jennifer Lawrence almost steals the show playing Irving’s ditzy, soon to be ex-wife, Rosalyn. She’s a loose cannon with lipstick who refers to a newfangled microwave as a “science oven.” But she’s pretty and sexy; it’s not hard to see how a younger Irving Rosenfeld could have fallen for her.
Adams’ character is the most interesting. She’s beautiful and the smartest person in the room. Irving is crazy about her. He soon takes her on (or is it the other way around?) as partner in crime and frisky times. It’s a match made in heaven.
Sydney, a former stripper, has a history of playing roles that require her to cultivate varying degrees of pretense for financial gain. That’s how she’s survived. Sydney can transform herself, like a cuttlefish, in a wink of an eye. One moment she’s a Siren; then an all-American girl landing a job at Cosmopolitan magazine despite her lack of experience. Just as abruptly, she’s the British-accented “Lady Edith Greensly," who has important banking connections in London. It’s not easy to keep up with her.
As Sydney explains in a voice-over early in the film, “I was broke; fearless; had nothing to lose. And my dream – more than anything – was to become anyone else other than who I was.”
The strength of Bale’s portrayal is how he makes it possible to believe such a gorgeous, intelligent woman could fall for her pudgy, follicle-impaired counterpart. Money doesn’t hurt; nor does their shared joy of music and larceny. There’s a special magic at work in the way Bale and Adams sell their relationship; they truly look like they belong together.
A few inspired casting choices include Louis CK as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s immediate superior. Stoddard is mortified by DiMaso's Dirty Harry routine. Their scenes together veer between amusing and hilarious, strung together by a running gag in which Thorsen can never finish his story about ice-fishing with his dad. DiMaso continually interrupts with what he incorrectly thinks is the ending.
One superstar actor makes an uncredited appearance playing the kind of part he’s so well-known for. Nice to see him on his A-game here because he probably could have sleepwalked through the role.
Securing the rights to the period specific music must have taken a sizeable bite out of the film’s budget ($40-50 million, according to producer Charles Roven in Variety). Period-specific music includes songs by Elton John, Donna Summer, The Bee Gees, Santana, Chicago and The Tempations, to name a few. They even splurged on Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” for the TV trailer.
See playdates and locations for “American Hustle” HERE.
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