My favorite minute of movie this year comes early in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” Christian Bale’s character, the con man Irving Rosenfeld, based on the real-life Abscam linchpin Mel Weinberg, is riding high: His small-time investment scams, conducted with his wily mistress (played by Amy Adams), keep growing more profitable, and they’re falling in love. Backed by the great Broadway finger-snapper “I’ve Got Your Number,” Bale and Adams dance their way across a Manhattan intersection and, after a perfect cut, into a hotel ballroom where vocalist Jack Jones and a jazz combo are swinging. So few directors today know how to move a camera around; Russell is one of them. The whole movie, a feast of ensemble wiles and stunning hair, is juicy, funny and alive.
It sets its tone of blithe truthiness at the beginning, as the words flash on screen: “Some of this actually happened.” Coming off “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” director and co-writer Russell treats the 1970s Abscam sting operation, and the schlump at its center as a pivot point for a spacious ensemble comedy — tone-funny and atmosphere-funny, not punch line-funny. Abscam was the FBI’s post-Watergate feel-good project, resulting in convictions of a U.S. senator, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and a slew of influence peddlers. “American Hustle” cares little for sorting out the particulars of Abscam. No model of narrative form, the film zigs and zags, chasing after many different characters. And that sprawl, the rogue’s gallery of strays, cheaters and deceivers, activates the film rather than deflates it.
The Abscam morass, which I could barely track (I’m an idiot) even on a second viewing, takes a back seat to the machinations of the characters played by Bale and Adams, and by Bradley Cooper, who co-stars as an egotistical FBI agent who nabs Rosenfeld and then goes into the entrapment business with him, while falling for his colleague.
The triangle is really a quadrangle; Jennifer Lawrence is formidably, unpredictably volatile as Rosenfeld’s wife, an unreliable mess with a preteen son. “I thought you were mysterious, like my mother!” Rosenfeld complains, breathlessly, in their first scene together. “Until it turned it out mysterious meant depressed, hard to reach!” Nobody’s satisfied for long in “American Hustle,” which carried a more direct and family-unfriendly word in its title back when screenwriter Eric Warren Singer’s script was making the rounds in Hollywood. (He retains primary screen credit.)
As Rosenfeld juggles his two lives and two women, he and Richie DiMaso (Cooper) bait the hook to nab, among other midlevel politicians, the back-slapping, casino-backing mayor of Camden, N.J., portrayed as a sympathetic scapegoat by Jeremy Renner. Abscam was an entrapment dilly, though many — including Russell — question the lengths to which the FBI went in order to catch a few governmental payroll hands in a few cookie jars. These are not especially glamorous figures, though they’re all stars in their own minds, and by their own careful presentation. Bale is introduced at the mirror, in a room at the Plaza, in 1978, fastidiously applying a toupee to one of the 20th century’s epic comb overs.
At one point, Rosenfeld and DiMaso (who’s constantly arguing budgets with his hapless overseer, played by Louis C.K.) set up a meeting between an aging Sam Giancana type, interested in Atlantic City gaming prospects, and a fake Arab sheik, the alleged backer. A near-mute Michael Pena plays the sheik, who’s really a Mexican-American FBI agent posing as an Arab. Robert De Niro plays the mobster, and when the miniscam threatens to fall apart and turn violent, “American Hustle” in turn threatens, with sly effectiveness, to turn into a very different movie. It’s a testament to Russell’s way with actors: Just when you think you never want to see De Niro play another mobster, he comes through, with understated impact.
Some, I suspect, will be frustrated by the movie’s disinterest in jacking up the suspense artificially throughout. “American Hustle” takes it easy. The coda feels soft, and the picture, probably to a fault, is forgiving toward Rosenfeld, who remains somewhat opaque. Bale’s characterization is impressive in its externals — the gained weight, the hunchy posture — but sometimes lacking in interpretive ease. Then again, this is a guy who lies and steals for his supper. He lives in a state of justifiable paranoia.
So much has been made already of “American Hustle’s” surface resemblance to Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” but Russell absorbs certain visual and musical influences from Scorsese while going his own merry way. The soundtrack covers everything from Duke Ellington to “A Horse With No Name”; cinematographer Linus Sandgren displays an unerring knack for slightly rancid ’70s chic. The actors strut through it all with supreme confidence. But as the lyric from “I’ve Got Your Number” indicates, it’s the false fronts and neuroses and insecurities that keep these peacocks interesting, and make “American Hustle” one of the year’s slyest entertainments.