The best movies about con artists work a bit of flimflammery themselves. They're not necessarily dishonest; they just can't resist making the truth shinier than it is in real life. There may not be much behind the sparkling tinsel curtain of David O. Russell's extraordinarily entertaining American Hustle. But what a curtain! Christian Bale in an endearingly artificial hairpiece; Amy Adams in a series of slippery '70s dresses cut down to there; Jennifer Lawrence in a tousled blond updo, two parts Ellen Barkin to one part Angie Dickinson: There's tons of artifice in American Hustle, but it's not the 3-D, special effects kind, and that's the joy of it.
Russell works this particular con the old-fashioned, American way, with faces and costumes and characters who do outlandish things. And even within its crazy parameters, it's based, albeit loosely, on real life: Russell and his co-writer, Eric Singer, drew from elements of the Abscam sting of the late 1970s. An early title card reads, “Some of this actually happened,” which is so much more whimsically truthful than your standard “based on actual events.”
Bale plays Bronx-born con artist Irving Rosenfeld: In the opening scene, we watch as he carefully spirit-glues a mat of fake hair onto his cue ball pate. As absurd as this painstaking ritual is, he looks much better with the rug, and his main squeeze, Sydney Prosser (Adams), seems to think so, too. She's a vixen who speaks with a pinkie-up British accent — though she's really from Albuquerque — and she's Irving's partner in a number of naughty little schemes, from selling forged art to charging poor schmoes outrageous fees with the promise of securing financing for their businesses.
Irving and Sydney are in love and desperately happy but for two complications: They've attracted the attention of loose-cannon FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper with a decidedly unsexiest-man-alive perm), who busts them but offers a deal if they'll help snare a few baddies and corrupt politicians. Plus, Irving has a wife and a kid and, as unscrupulous as he is in his business dealings, he's principled enough to want to stick by them.
And so he does, even after wife Rosalyn, played by Lawrence, nearly sets the family home aflame by falling asleep under a sunlamp: Lawrence makes her entrance looking like a harlequin, her face half crimson. Later, she tangles with mobsters at a social function that's crucial to the FBI bust, shimmying up to them with the flirty flooziness of one of Dean Martin's Golddiggers.
Russell, hardly the most sensual of filmmakers, delights in Lawrence, which may be one reason the movie works so well. He's the sort of director who seldom delights in anything, but American Hustle is his version of a soft-shoe. By taking a break from being self-consciously earnest (Silver Linings Playbook), bare-knuckles gritty (The Fighter) and aggressively experimental (I Heart Huckabees), Russell has shaken something loose. You'd never credit him with a light touch, but American Hustle cruises along like a line of wedding guests doing the Electric Slide. Its plot mechanics are impossible to take seriously and yet deeply pleasurable to parse, right up to the who's-screwing-whom ending.
Russell, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and production designer Judy Becker don't take the easy route of making '70s New York look tawdry and faded; it's sparkly, a little tacky, anything but a hard-luck rat hole. That's the proper environment for this ensemble: Bale may not be the most believable scrapper, but at least he's dropped most of his usual capital-A Actor mannerisms. Jeremy Renner plays Carmine Polito, mayor of Camden, N.J., an upstanding politician who becomes a pawn of the FBI — he's boyishly charismatic in his Bobby Darin pompadour. Adams has some fun playing a scheming strumpet, a switch from the girl-next-door roles she's often stuck with. Cooper, with those goofy curls, makes a good foil for her: Richie is smitten with Sydney, thinking she's out of his league socially when really she has scrambled up from the bottom. When he woos her, his eyes take on the softness of a cartoon puppy's.
But it's Lawrence who brings the most air and energy to American Hustle. Seemingly everyone loves her these days, maybe partly because she gives the most uncanned interviews of any celebrity in recent memory. When Vogue writer Jonathan Van Meter showed up to talk to her, she pounced on his RadioShack tape recorder: “This thing is archaic. Are you going to write this whole thing out longhand, with, like, a pen?” As both a celebrity and an actress, she has no interest in keeping her cool with us — that would be boring. Her Rosalyn is both the liveliest character and the most honest, a woman who likes to put on a killer dress and paint the town. Yet one line of dialogue indicates that she's prone to depression, unwilling or unable to even leave the house. Even when Rosalyn is in party-girl mode, you can still see that muted sadness; Lawrence keeps it simmering on low. Rosalyn isn't in on Irving's con; she's too much of a live wire to keep his secrets (and she may have one of her own).
You can see why she drives him nuts, and you can see why he loved her so much in the first place. She's dazzling, like a dangly earring. She may be shiny, but she's for real.
AMERICAN HUSTLE | Directed by David O. Russell | Written by Eric Singer and Russell | Sony Pictures | Landmark, AMC Century City