This review appeared in shorter form on Lawrence.com
“Some of this actually happened,” reads the opening titles before the movie begins. Not only is it a breath of fresh air from the spate of movies that come out each Oscar season that claim to be based on a true story (see last year’s heavily modified version of the truth in Argo), but it also sets the loony tone of this freewheeling film.
As he proved in 1999’s underrated war drama/western/satire/heist/action film/comedy/political thriller/social conscience movie Three Kings, Russell is a master at defying genre. He’s at it again, as he reportedly got a hold of Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay about the controversial 1978-1980 Abscam FBI sting and, fascinated by the questionable ethics of the operation, concocted a desperate love triangle and played fast and loose with the facts. (It may not surprise people that some of the strangest parts of the tale are true.)
Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sidney Prosser (Adams) are two lost American dreamers who fall in love (despite the fact that Irving is already married) and are intent on changing their own lives. They remake themselves as a successful businessman with high-falutin’ connections and an English noblewoman, but are soon caught by overeager FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and forced into wearing wires and extending their scam to entrap government officials.
Believe it or not, amidst all of the oversized collars and outlandish suits, Bale—who also added 50 pounds for the role—wrings real pathos out of Irving, making him a three-dimensional character. Adams does the same with Sidney, which is a real feat, considering she’s pretending to be someone else half the time. There’s a streak of genuine sadness from these two misfits, who are determined to make their way “the only way they know how,” as Waylon Jennings once sang.
Cooper’s Richie has his own manic tendencies even before he gets hooked own cocaine, and some of his drug-fueled rages are the funniest moments of the film. Jennifer Lawrence mines gold out of the impossibly dim Rosalyn, who prefers to stay home with her and Irving’s child, but ends of being the life of the party every time she goes out.
I haven’t mentioned Jeremy Renner yet, who of the top-lining talent has a smaller yet key role. He plays the mayor of Camden, New Jersey—a man with mafia ties and a big heart. His character embodies the theme and troubled moral compass of American Hustle perfectly. He repeatedly says that all he wants to do is help the people of his city, and is willing to make illegal concessions to do that-for the greater good.
Russell’s movie illustrates a post-Watergate era when disillusionment ran high and the national identity was struggling. Even as it profiles criminal behavior from citizens, lawmen, and elected officials, American Hustle sympathizes with its miscreants and paints them as victims of a corrupt culture. It does so with an infectious amount of energy and a labyrinthine plot that probably doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. But who cares, when it’s this much fun?
Besides, some of it actually happened.