Movie review: Fine acting, scam-filled plot propel 'American Hustle'


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"American Hustle" is all about scams -- the long con, the short con, the sting known as Abscam and the intimate act of fooling yourself or others -- but the movie doesn't pretend that everything we're about to see is true.

A note at the beginning of the David O. Russell film states: "Some of this actually happened." And some did, although the names are changed to protect the guilty and innocent and those who toggle back and forth.

'American Hustle'

Starring: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence.

Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.

Whatever the ratio of truth to fanciful invention, "American Hustle" is thoroughly entertaining, a zany trip back to the late 1970s and a scandal some of us have reduced to memories of fuzzy black-and-white surveillance footage. Something about cash and an Arab sheik and sticky-fingered politicians.

Mr. Russell reunites with actors who won Oscars or were nominated under his direction, notably Christian Bale and Amy Adams ("The Fighter"), Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper ("Silver Linings Playbook"), and brings Jeremy Renner into the fold. Robert De Niro, who played Mr. Cooper's dad in "Silver Linings Playbook," turns up in an uncredited cameo that's too sweet to spoil.

The movie opens with the stunning transformation of Mr. Bale, whose 43-pound weight gain is obvious in his groaning gut and who is painstakingly camouflaging a bald spot with a hair piece, a pot of glue and a swooping comb-over. His character, Irving Rosenfeld, is a con man, and that includes pretending he's not suffering from weird male pattern baldness.

Irving has been playing fast and loose with the law since he was a boy who drummed up customers for his father's glass-replacement business by breaking windows. He eventually inherited that outfit, runs a chain of of dry cleaners and adds dealing in stolen or forged artwork and bilking loan seekers to his portfolio.

He gains a partner and a mistress in onetime stripper Sydney Prosser (Ms. Adams), who pretends to be an Englishwoman with London banking connections. "It was almost scary how easy it was to take money from desperate people," she muses. But she takes money from the wrong man and lands the pair in the clutches of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Mr. Cooper, with permed hair).

What starts as an FBI attempt to curb white-collar crime morphs into a colossal scheme involving millions of dollars, the Mafia, a big-hearted Jersey mayor and family man (Mr. Renner) who wants to rebuild Atlantic City and put people back to work, and Irving's wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a talkative, tempestuous Long Island housewife.

"American Hustle" fictionalizes Abscam and uses it to explore larger questions and issues. As Irving suggests, "We're all conning ourselves one way or another just to get through life" and, "People believe what they want to believe."

Mr. Russell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Warren Singer ("The International" starring Clive Owen), says the characters of "American Hustle" have something in common with those of "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter." Things have not gone the way they wanted or intended and they're trying to change their lives through reinvention.

"American Hustle" injects the story with comedy, tension, surprise and sympathy for the characters, whether they're a guilty con man, a person doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, a G-man desperate to be more than a low-level guy still living with his mother or the workplace cat lady. And it sails along on songs, from Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" to Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and Tom Jones' "Delilah," all complementing the action.

It's exhilarating and energetic, complete with crazy hair (Mr. Renner calls his "Liberace-meets-Tony Curtis" while Ms. Lawrence's is fussy, big and sprayed into place) and flashy clothes that telegraph change, manipulation or aspiration, as with a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress and a fur coat. There's even a newfangled invention that, like some of these plans, blows up.

The acting is terrific across the board, whether Ms. Adams' character is briefly letting her guard and accent down, Ms. Lawrence turning manic or tearful and Mr. Bale looking, acting and sounding like a virtual stranger to his "Out of the Furnace" mill worker or, certainly, Batman.

Mr. Bale's character is based on Melvin Weinberg, who once said Pittsburgh was where Abscam began (see sidebar) and whose estranged wife met a sad ending. The movie doesn't journey that far, instead allowing us to go out on a high and happy note, '70s fashions not included.

 


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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