To understand the breadth of disco-era deception laid out in American Hustle, understand that the most honest character in the movie is a politician. Not entirely honorable but compared with the swindle sharks circling, he's Jimmy Carter on Sundays. ∂ Everyone has at least one con going in David O. Russell's kinetically retro, left-field funny film, which last week earned seven Golden Globe nominations. The scams begin with Irving Rosenfeld's toupee and comb-over combo, a small marvel of follicle engineering and vanity. Irving, played by Christian Bale, is a small-time scammer, mostly fake art and ghost loans, until he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who seduces him to bigger scores, as slinky femme fatales do.
Their jig appears to be up when Irving and Sydney get stung by ethically bankrupt FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who offers a deal: Set up a few big busts to burnish his career, important people doing shady things, and charges will be dropped. One mark turns out to be the semihonest, populist Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who thinks he's rebuilding the Jersey Shore, with a necessary hand from the mob.
Then there's Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving's real housewife of Long Island and a piece of work. Her con is keeping Irving paying the bills. Her specialty is saying wrong things to wrong people at right moments for American Hustle's shell game shuffle to accelerate beyond flashy puzzlement to intoxicating grift, its characters revealed by insecurities they're covering up. The con as survival tool, Irving assures when the gold dust settles, is a timeless art.
An opening note to Russell's caper announces: Some of this actually happened. American Hustle appropriately plays fast and loose with facts surrounding the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, a loopy affair already, with politicians caught in an FBI sting accepting bribes from a phony Middle Eastern sheik. (Former U.S. Rep. Richard Kelly of New Port Richey was among those convicted of bribery and conspiracy.) A swindling couple like Irving and Sydney helped set it up. Names have been changed. Nobody's innocent.
Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer lay out these deceits and double-crosses with precision but American Hustle isn't merely a procedural. Defining these outsized personalities, tracing their unconventional connections and affections, is where Russell's movie finds its irreverent heartbeat. Everyone is trying to be someone else, as con artists and undercover cops do, but that's tougher to accomplish with romance, bromance and jealousy in the mix.
Reuniting key actors from his previous movies The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell has a game ensemble at his disposal. Bale adds another startling physical transformation to his filmography, with the prosperous paunch, tinted Aviators and "dese-dem-dose" accent of a street kid who hit it big. Cooper rocks a tight perm and '70s polyester, an intense mama's boy soaking up Irving's knowledge yet never quite getting it.
American Hustle goes from being very good to terrific by emphasizing the dames of the caper, two women in Irving's life who in very different ways nearly ruin it. Adams makes Sydney into a cunning sexual creature, the boldest performance of her career. She's topped by Lawrence's impossibly magnetic turn as Rosalyn, the kittenish catalyst for everything meaningful after the setup, without knowing exactly what she's doing. But Russell does, and every frame of this stylish movie proves it.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.