Reel To Reel: American Hustle
Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro (cameo)
Red Flags: Strong language, brief spurts of violence, several scenes of sexuality or near-sex with only partial nudity
American Hustle is a darkly comic extravaganza where everybody's angling to get someplace better by nearly any means possible. But mainly, it's about two budding con artists in the late 1970's trying to pull off the biggest job of their lives, with the feds, the mob, and their lovers hovering around them. And yes, they flaunt those tacky disco outfits, the ones people can't believe were once so chic.
Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) owns a chain of dry-cleaning stores in New York City, but through years of acquired street smarts, he's making his real money fencing pilfered artwork and running a loan scam. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Adams), an ex-stripper who's hustled her way into Cosmopolitan magazine and has serious acting chops. They fall in love, but when Rosenfeld nearly blows up their romance in a moment of honesty about his finance racket, Prosser comes back to him with an angle of her own. She poses as Lady Edith Greensly, a dignified English woman with banking connections.
The two of them form a mutually beneficial partnership to shake money out of desperate people until they get caught hustling undercover FBI agent Richie DeMaso (Cooper). The agent offers Rosenfeld and his lady a deal to save their hides: help the feds take down financial fraudsters. Irving comes up with a sting involving a fake sheik to front money for bogus investments. Agent DeMaso's aspirations soon grow bigger when he finds out he can potentially bust politicians and even a mob kingpin.
As the scheme grows bigger, egos inflate, and the danger level rises as Rosenfeld and Prosser's relationship sours. DeMaso develops the hots for the English lady who's going to help him become an FBI star. Irving seems to be on the losing end, setting things up to see them spiral out of control, endangering his adopted son and his estranged loose-cannon wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) -- who could blow the whole operation.
Irving doesn't seem like a con man to us. He's more of a beleaguered businessman trying to work his way out of a bad deal without losing his leisure suit. Irv ends up befriending one of his marks, Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner), a New Jersey pol who has a big heart but needs developers and their money to get Atlantic City's newly-approved gaming industry rolling. Sydney is the more dangerous hustler, a casual seductress who leaves you unsure if she's playing you, even as she describes how she plans to play other people. Agent DeMaso is the pitiful soul, living in a run-down apartment with his dotty mother and a token fiancee while secretly wearing curlers to keep his hair in that hip 70's do. Robert De Nero even makes a short but memorable appearance in a key scene.
This picture kept reminding me of Martin Scorsese's Casino, with its multiple narrative tracks, its tangled web of criminals and love interests, and a world we know is going to come crashing down. But whereas Casino gets more frenetic as the film wears on, American Hustle remembers to breathe and let its compelling characters be compelling. Bale says much of the film was improvised, giving it freshness and energy. I didn't spot a weak performance anywhere.
The movie is loosely based on Abscam, the FBI sting which enlisted the help of a convicted con artist to snare a U.S. senator and several congressmen on bribery charges in the late 1970's. As originally scripted, the picture stuck closer to the true-life characters, but director David O. Russell smartly realized it wouldn't be as fun. He re-wrote it to crank up the intrigue and the danger levels, and it works as an ensemble caper film. Only this isn't about a con, but people trying to con themselves into thinking they can get what they want, any way they can.
One last note: those of you in Southern Arizona, be watching for a line from the fake sheik in this film. You'll know it when you hear it. And it might just have you applauding like several in the audience did when they heard it, myself included.