Director David O. Russell's vision of America has always been Winesburg, Ohio, hopped up on trucker speed: a place of frantic grotesques distorted by their own need. In his new film, American Hustle—loosely based on the Abscam federal bribery scandal of the 1970s—everyone from New Jersey mayors to federal agents to small-time con artists are so warped by ambition that integrity and even identity become expensive luxury items. The film is a balls-to-the-wall, unbridled love affair with homegrown bullshit and piss-taking. American Bullshit was, in fact, the working title of the film, and in bullshit, it would seem Russell has finally found his true subject matter.
Russell's early films, from Spanking the Monkey to I Heart Huckabee's, were for the most part cynical romps in the fields of the neurotic. Even in last year's charming revisionist romcom Silver Linings Playbook, the characters were bemired in distracting quirks. Maybe this was a statement about the lurking insanity of regular people, but often it seemed like a writer's tic, a defense mechanism against accusations of boring sincerity.
But from the sincerely insincere, American Hustle builds genuine characters. The ersatz glitz of the '70s—the shining polyesters and ambitious decolletage of both man and woman—might as well get a supporting actor credit. A nomination, even.
The film's establishing shot is brilliant in this regard: a humorously long sequence of Christian Bale's potbellied con man, Irving Rosenfeld, gluing a toupee to his head. In a world where appearances are more real than what lies beneath, it is the making of a man. When meticulously permed federal agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) makes a move on Rosenfeld's girl almost immediately thereafter, it's an insult. When he musses his rug, it's an unforgivable violation.
Rosenfeld and mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams)—his partner in a series of hilariously implausible short cons—have been caught by DiMaso in an undercover sting and are forced to run confidence rackets for the feds in order to nab other grifters. The stakes, inevitably, inflate with DiMaso's coke-fueled ego. By the time they're done, they've invented a fake sheik meant to con the Mafia, a sea of U.S. congressmen and a New Jersey political whore with a heart of gold.
Meanwhile, the hapless Rosenfeld is playing the oldest con of them all: lying to his wife. Rosalyn Rosenfeld is played by Jennifer Lawrence as a creature of wised-up self delusion, a camp parody of crazy womanhood somewhere between Preston Sturges and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It's the showiest performance of the film—especially during a batshit-angry, lipstick-smearing kiss planted on the mug of her husband's mistress. But as it turns out, American Hustle is the sort of film that loves the mistress more than the wife.
Adams is convincing as the perpetual other woman, trapped in the accent of an English aristocrat. She plays herself romantically against both con man and federal agent, while at the same time hilariously insisting everything has to be real. Her life is a con, but she wants true love. It is possible to believe in her and not believe a word she's saying.
Russell has found equal muses in Cooper and Bale. Cooper's DiMaso is a handsome face gone ticky and feral: a self-hating peacock with eyes animated by a near-constant, lacerating fear. Bale is the actorly equivalent of an extreme sportsman, one step from the abyss at all times. But in the role of a guilt-riddled, slack-bodied charlatan, he's as comfortable as he's been in years.
Halfway through the film's wild pretzel of a plot it's unclear who's conning whom, but it's clear everybody's conning themselves. This is the high wire that makes American Hustle so exhilarating, with the quick turns of a David Mamet or Howard Hawks fast-talkie. Despite its '70s high-criminal subject matter, it is far closer to His Girl Friday than to Goodfellas. Really, it's the sort of flick we've rarely seen since the '40s: a farce with a heart.
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: American Hustle is rated R. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Oak Grove, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Sherwood, Tigard, Mill Plain, Cornelius.