The con artist mentality – everyone is a sucker and the more you say NO to “marks”, the more they want what you are selling; conversely everyone likes to play the flim-flam game – that is the basic premise of David O. Russell’s goofy, madcap new film AMERICAN HUSTLE. And the Federal Government turns out to be the ultimate hustler in the “idealistic” pursuit of justice or “entrapment”– a thin line that bends and sways depending on the ambitions of prosecutors. The word “real” is used in the dialogue over and over and over again…disguise is the norm – being “real” involves a rare moment of trust and exposure of your inner self which always reeks of a putrid scent, barely camouflaged by the fragrance of nectar that we employ as a shield of body armor.
This convoluted, crazily complex movie originated “somewhat” with a true story-the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970’s. Understanding the source will help make sense of AMERICAN HUSTLE, giving you the opportunity to relax and be entertained, without being distracted trying to puzzle out what is going on. ABSCAM was an FBI sting operation in the late 1970s and early1980s, initially trafficking in stolen property but later converted to a public corruption investigation. The FBI hired Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con man, to help plan and conduct the operation. "Abscam" was the FBI codename for the undertaking, because it involved Abdul Enterprises, Ltd., as its front company, using an FBI employee posing as Karim Abdul Rahman, a fictional Middle Eastern sheikh bribing targeted government officials in videotaped meetings. Suffice it to say Atlantic City and its burgeoning casino industry were in the mix, ultimately leading to the conviction of a United States senator, six members of the House of Representatives, one member of the New Jersey State Senate, members of the Philadelphia City Council, and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Christian Bale (terrific) still handsome after gaining over 40 lbs playing the beer bellied mastermind and proud-of-it charlatan, Irving Rosenfeld (based on Abscam’s Melvin Weinberg) who owns many dry-cleaning and window glass stores in the Bronx and Manhattan – all small time establishments fronting illegal loan activities. The movie opens with Irving fashioning his daily make-over on an elaborately funny and very serious comb-over – a source of pride and concealment before attending a cocktail party where he glances over and BAMMM sees a gorgeous Amy Adams who portrays the seductive, alabaster toned Sydney Prosser, and Irving Rosenfeld is hooked on the spot – meeting his match in brains and larceny. But this dame is a classy one, who has already “masked” her persona, and intuiting a fellow traveler responds to Christian Bale in kind. A love story is in the making, despite the fact that Irving is married to a surprisingly, (for me) wonderfully, eccentric, often inept, and unsuitable (to his chosen profession) wife, Rosalyn played by Jennifer Lawrence, who might be the most authentic person in AMERICAN HUSTLE.
Adams and Bale join forces and become partners in crime, and business is soon flourishing until a wildly enterprising, tightly curled poodle cut, FBI undercover agent, Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso) shows up and snares them in his net. From then on our heroes are working for the impulsive, righteously manic, Cooper in order to stay out of jail.
And then the fun begins! Larger and more intricate schemes including Abscam (Arab scam) loom ahead. Passionate avidity blossoms as a Mafioso - a critical bit part by a barely recognizable Robert De Niro - gets enmeshed into the conspiracy. Despite harebrained shenanigans and lots of heedless bungling, and plot twists, the underlying romance perseveres, complicated by Christian Bale’s hesitant equivocation concerning the age-old choice between wife and girlfriend. Another memorable character, a linchpin of the FBI shakedown operation - Jeremy Renner is startling as the oblivious, charismatic Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden NJ, complete with an Elvis-style mop of hair, and the only politician who actually cares and works for his constituents. He is the one genuinely tragic figure in this tale.
AMERICAN HUSTLE is a complicated mosaic of cynicism, questions of credibility, legitimacy and the art of illusion tempting desire. The energetic soundtrack weaves through each scene punctuating the activity; passages are episodic - some hilarious and others predictable. Absurdity nesting in farce can be sublime…those resplendent moments appear and vanish like the hypothesis of the film itself.