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Film Review: American Hustle

A few years after the Watergate scandal pushed political cynicism to new heights in America, the Abscam affair did nothing to restore civic faith. The FBI’s sting operation resulted in the convictions of seven members of Congress, including one senator, and showed that the feds were cracking down on corruption. The system works, right? Not so fast.

Once it became apparent that the FBI had hired a known swindler and used tactics verging on entrapment to snare their targeted prey, Abscam entered the American lexicon as just another instance of government ineptitude and amorality. Maybe that’s why it remains a fairly obscure piece of recent history, and why it’s taken until now for a major film treatment of it to emerge.

David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” intends to provide a definitive treatment of this sordid episode: An opening title card cheekily declares “Some of this actually happened,” forestalling any tsk-tsking about fidelity to the facts of the case. Instead, Russell serves up a collection of schemers, schlemiels, and suckers, all decked out in the finest Disco Era fashions and an array of unforgettable hairstyles.

The cast incorporates a pair Oscar nominees (one of whom won) from Russell’s last film,“Silver Linings Playbook,” and another pair (one of whom won) from the film before that, “The Fighter.” Christian Bale piles on the pounds and one of history’s most elaborate comb-overs to play Irving Rosenfeld, the con man (based on Melvin Weinberg) at the center of the tale. Irving is a far cry from the gaunt, severe characters Bale’s known for, and he’s clearly having a blast.

Amy Adams continues to show she’s more than a perky face as Sidney Prosser, Irving’s British-accented, brassiere-eschewing partner in deception and extramarital romance. Jennifer Lawrence goes for the brassy ring as Irving’s crazy-like-a-fox wife, stashed on Long Island and prone to minor house fires. Bradley Cooper, as the FBI agent orchestrating this circus, suffers the indignity of a perm that’s as tightly wound as his character.

It’s tremendously entertaining to wind up this cast (which includes Jeremy Renner as the beleaguered mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Louis C.K. as Cooper’s put-upon supervisor, and an uncredited cameo from another “Silver Linings” cast member) and let them loose on what’s essentially a shaggy-dog story where the only moral seems to be that everybody’s trying to pull one over on somebody else. If the title hadn’t already been taken by W.C. Fields, they could have called this one “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”

Russell’s gift for orchestrating screwball shenanigans has been evident from the start, with the criminally under-appreciated “Flirting with Disaster” a prime example. That, combined with period detail that verges on fetishism (I was only a kid, but I don’t remember the '70s being quite this '70s), makes “American Hustle” move swiftly despite a nearly two-and-a-half hour running time.

But the movie doesn’t reach the peak of “Flirting” or “Silver Linings,” probably because, as simple as it sounds, there isn’t anybody to root for. Irving is a charmer, in his own cigar-chomping, chutzpah-powered way, but he’s only appealing in contrast to the other, even more manipulative folks around him. Lawrence’s cuckolded wife gets some sympathy, but her domestic misadventures (including a memorable encounter with an early microwave oven) and general instability make her easier to laugh at than with.

There’s plenty of fun to be had, but in the long term, “American Hustle” may be remembered more for its superficial pleasures than the depth of its impact. Kind of like the 1970s.
----------------------------Our Grade: 9 out of 10

Rated: R

Running time: 138 minutes

Cast and crew: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K.; directed by David O. Russell.

Official Synopsis: Con artist Irving Rosenfeld is hired by the FBI to run a sting operation targeting corrupt politicians, a process abetted and complicated by his mistress and partner in crime as well as his erratic wife. Loosely based on the Abscam affair of the 1970s, David O. Russell’s film lets a crackerjack cast strut its stuff but never quite connects on an emotional level.

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