It's an odd year at the movies. This week, with "American Hustle," you get Christian Bale doing Robert De Niro and director David O. Russell doing Martin Scorsese; next week, you get Leonardo DiCaprio giving off eau de Jack Nicholson in a real-deal Scorsese movie.
Both films are dark comedies about America's systematic capacities for rapacious greed, corruption and abuse of all kinds, but "American Hustle" takes a lighter approach, beginning with its title card promise "Some of this actually happened." True enough: "American Hustle" (with a script credited to Eric Singer and Russell) loosely derives from the late-'70s, early-'80s FBI Abscam operation, so named for its employment of an "Arab," a fake sheik used to entrap politicians into accepting bribes.
Russell buys himself free reign by admitting he's cherry-picking history for juicy bits while allowing himself to design the characters and story for maximum tickling. Bale plays skilled fraudster Irving Rosenfeld. Along with his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, affecting a British accent), Rosenfeld bilks investors, until one turns out to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a slickster in his own right who's not all he cracks himself up to be.
DiMaso flips Irving and Sydney, using their con-artist expertise to seduce politicians like Jeremy Renner's Camden, N.J., mayor. Throwing wrenches into the works: DiMaso's sexual interest in Prosser, and Rosenfeld's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose-cannon alcoholic. While troubleshooting, Rosenfeld keeps his eyes on the prize of freedom and the continued fatherhood of his adopted son (a transparent plot device to make Irving more sympathetic).
Russell's original title for all this was "American Bulls**t," and he doesn't seem above including himself in the mire. There's a self-aware feel to the period pageantry, the alternatingly seductive and kinetic cinematography. This ramshackle contraption is held together with spit and bailing wire to become an actors' showcase (for what are con artists and undercover agents if not actors?).
And yet, it works, not unlike "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," because we meet it halfway with our own awareness of the forebears Russell lightly subverts (whether underdog sports movies, screwball comedies or, now, Scorsese's American crime epics), and we're willing to fill in the blanks to enjoy trappings like Bale finessing Irving's "rather elaborate" comb-over or Lawrence yammering Rosalyn's way into getting what she wants.
Adams gives the most subtle, human-scale performance in the film (and is therefore getting the least amount of credit), but Renner's right behind her, and the rest entertain with their relatively full-throttle shtick. Bale's particularly amuses when pulling his DeNiro faces as Irving attempts to contain his displeasure at DiMaso, and laser-focused Lawrence again shows how comfortably she nestles into Russell's improvisatory style.
"American Hustle" is a lark with flair, muckraking capitalism, throwing up its hands and letting the best (con) man win.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence. Two hours, 18 minutes.