Director David O. Russell has said that his latest film, the much buzzed-about American Hustle, is the third in a trilogy that began with The Fighter in 2010 and continued with Silver Linings Playbook last year. While on the surface each is very different — The Fighter shows little of Russell’s playfulness while Playbook is rife with it — each focuses on a particular social subset of contemporary America: the ambitions of the Northeast’s white working class.
Hustle, very loosely based on the real-life escapades that resulted in the Abscam scandal of the late ’70s in which one senator and six congressmen were convicted on bribery and conspiracy charges, is set in the New Jersey of popular lore — the same area that has already given the world Jersey Shore and the most boisterous of the Real Housewives franchises. But, to his credit, Russell — working from a script co-written with Eric Singer ( The International) — gets beneath the wise-guy accents, bad hair and loud clothes to deliver a colorful, well-acted comic family drama whose characters are nevertheless hard to cozy up to.
The movie opens with con man and king of the comb-over Irving Rosenfeld (an unrecognizably fat and balding Christian Bale) putting on his toupé, part of his armor against a world populated by his cacophonous wife, Rosalyn (a fantastic Jennifer Lawrence), slinky mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) and wildly enthusiastic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper with bad ’70s hair), who’s out to get all of them. Irving and Sydney have been engaging in low-level fraud so they’re on Richie’s radar, but he wants bigger fish. If they agree to cooperate in a sting operation, the government will look the other way on their charges.
That’s when Rosenfeld finds himself in the middle of a cloak-and-dagger circus, acting as a middle man between a Middle Eastern “sheik” (actually an undercover Mexican-American FBI agent played by Michael Peña), members of the Mob, and local politicians like Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who say they just want to bring jobs and security to an economically battered part of the state. The sheik is claiming he wants to invest millions in building local casinos and seems ready to spread the wealth around to whomever needs to be paid off so he doesn’t have to worry about pesky regulations and laws.
This is all a backdrop to an unpredictably jittery family drama that doesn’t head in a safe or uplifting direction as Russell’s two previous films did. When combined with the excellent soundtrack of the era — Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, Wing’s Live and Let Die, The Bee Gees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart just to name a few — American Hustle surges with an affable electricity.
Still, for all of that, it’s hard to feel much for anyone on the screen. With the possible exception of Rosalyn — who refuses to let a small thing like another woman take her husband away from her — everyone seems more like a construct than a character. For this reason, American Hustle turns out to be somewhat less than the sum of its many appealing parts.