American Hustle is top-notch razzle-dazzle

by Mark Burger

The opening title card of David O. Russell’s American Hustle reads simply: “Some of this actually happened.”

And so it did, and so begins a wildly entertaining, wickedly assembled dramatization of what was commonly referred to as “Abscam,” a late-’70s sting operation sanctioned by the FBI to entrap corrupt politicians.

The film, written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, adheres to the old adage that crime does not pay … but in American Hustle it makes for sharp, sizzling cinema. Russell conveys this saga in a sweeping, dizzying fashion. There’s never a dull moment but plenty a dazzling one, and if Russell appropriates a few cinematic techniques — multiple narration, surreal cinematography (courtesy Linus Sandgren) — that recall Martin Scorsese (particularly Goodfellas), he’s certainly borrowing from the best — and in no way does it intrude on the story at hand.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are con artists and lovers coerced into the Abscam scheme by impetuous FBI agent Richie DiMaso (executive producer Bradley Cooper). This unlikely combination is highly combustible, and proceeds to grow ever more complicated as the operation goes forward.

Richie quickly finds himself drawn into the high-rolling, high-octane lifestyle that Irving and Sydney maneuver in, and American Hustle stays rooted in a moral gray area that blurs the lines, sometimes gleefully, between right and wrong. Characters do the right thing for the wrong reason and vice-versa. There are no clear-cut heroes or villains, and sometimes nobility rears up in the unlikeliest of places.

The cast could hardly be bettered. Give good actors good material and it’s a winning proposition for everyone — including the audience. Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s blithely destructive wife, and Jeremy Renner as a well-intentioned New Jersey politician are as superb as the lead trio, and there are solid turns by Louis CK, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Elisabeth Rohm, Hollywood veteran Anthony Zerbe (whom we don’t see enough of these days), and an uncredited Robert De Niro, whose onscreen introduction is mighty impressive. It’s one of the year’s most impressive ensembles.

The period detail has been meticulously and, in the case of the disco-era hairstyles, outrageously re-created, with Bale’s comb-over a magnificent achievement in itself. So, overall, is American Hustle.