Confidence is a dangerous trade. It allows people to be taken advantage of and trust to be used as a currency. Men like Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) uses what people project on him, what big-time opportunities they want. The lies stare them right in the face, but the perks are far too much to resist. People see what they want to see. As American Hustle opens, Irving plants himself in front of a mirror and carefully crafts an image for himself, assembling his comb-over, putting on his shades and sealing the deal with a crushed velvet suit. If a con is to work, everything must be presentable.
Irving has built a reasonable life for himself. He owns a chain of dry cleaning shops, deals questionable art and makes even more questionable deals, but he knows his limits. He doesn’t push his luck and his life is ultimately better for it. That is, until he comes across Sydney Prosser (an absolutely alluring Amy Adams). The two bond over Duke Ellington and very quickly see kindred spirits in one another as people willing to do what is necessary to survive.
Completely entranced, Irving reveals the shadier aspects of his life to Sydney. In turn, she introduces him to her other personality, Lady Edith Greensly, a London socialite with access to many international businessmen. The two team up, pilfering $5,000 at a time from prospective clients by hawking Edith’s financial connections. Their brash schemes catch up to them when a mark reveals himself to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). He arrests Sydney and offers Irv a deal: work as an advisor for the FBI or watch Sydney rot in prison.
Fractures develop between Irv and Sydney almost immediately. Sydney understands that Irv would lose his adopted son if they went on the lam, but she hates that his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) lords it over him. Looking to make a name for himself, DiMaso pushes Irv and Sydney into going after Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) by dangling a fictitious Arab sheikh interested in renovating Atlantic City casinos. Each new additional wrinkle he throws into the operation leaves Irving spinning more plates than even a seasoned conman can handle.
Between the perms, the horrible clothing and garish design schemes, the 1970s were a hideous decade, yet the cast of American Hustle trades looking good for some outstanding performances. Christian Bale pulls a reversal of The Fighter, gaining a paunch instead of a drug habit. Irving Rosenfeld is just as showy as Dicky Eklund, but in a completely different fashion. Whereas Eklund mugged for the hell of it, Rosenfeld’s theatricality serves a greater purpose and is absolutely crucial to each ploy. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence add some color to the mix as the wild man and the brilliantly idiotic housewife, respectively. Amy Adams also turns heads as the stunning and very calculating Sydney Prosser. It’s said of the best performances that you can see the character thinking, and Adams is no exception. She play all sides against the middle, keeping ahead of not just the other characters, but the audience as well.
David O. Russell has a gift for the farce at work in American institutions, and in American Hustle he’s created another instant classic. After Vietnam and Watergate, the late ’70s were a hotbed of paranoia and self-promotion, creating self-serving con artists, politicians and criminals out to get theirs at the expense of everyone else. Abscam – the real world scandal around which is loosely based – shook the United States to its core. Yet it doesn’t take too much to see the remnants left today.
A caper film destined to be included with classics like The Sting, the film has all the manic energy of Martin Scorsese in his Goodfellas-era prime. With the aid of a monstrously talented cast and a director at-tune with his most chaotic instincts, American Hustle succeeds not only in its recreation of the time, but by filling its world with unique, enthralling characters that are sure to delight audiences for a long time to come.