It was time of wide ties and velvet suits, jangly jewelry, open shirts, big hair and boat-size cars. After Watergate, cynicism was everybody's default mode. The economy was in the toilet, disco was on the radio and everybody was corrupt.
American Hustle reminds us that as jaded as we've gotten today about crime, a rigged economy, government and politics, none of this is new.
And if you're looking for a place where right and wrong dissolved from black and white to shades of gray, David O. Russell's caper comedy is built around the 1970s Abscam scandal, a wide-ranging FBI sting operation from the golden age of such stings. It's a film of bottom-feeding con artists, ambitious politicians and insanely ambitious law enforcement folk. It makes delicious fun of the zero- tolerance zeal built into this scandal and its true cost to our ability to get big things done.
Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a New York lowlife who runs loan scams, art-forgery scams and a chain of dry cleaners and glass repair shops all over the five boroughs.
He has a soul mate, a paramour and partner in crime: Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Like Irving, Sydney's a dreamer. When she buys into his profession, a fake English accent becomes her calling card and Lady Edith Greensly becomes her name.
Irving is fat, with an epic comb-over not quite covering his bald pate. But sexy Sydney, who never met a bra she liked, shrugs that off. She can see through people, size them up. And she's good at rationalizing their scams, aimed mainly at desperate small-business people.
Then they con the wrong guy.
Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is a fanatical FBI agent living the Saturday Night Fever dream. He has a room in his mom's house, a fiancée he has no interest in spending his future with and his permed hair in curlers every night.
Richie is every bit the striver that Irving and Sydney are. But what he wants is the glory of tearing down a culture of graft, fraud and corruption. These two, strong-armed into setting up cons to snare bigger fish, are his next promotion.
Russell has plenty of fun with the garish era of the setting — "This new thing — a microwave. ... It's scientific! Don't put metal in it!" — and he never lets himself get too caught up in the actual facts of this sting. That involved a fake Arab sheik, a lot of money promised to help relaunch the casino industry in Atlantic City, and the politicians and mobsters who desperately want that to happen. The opening credits joke: "Some of this actually happened."
The three leads narrate the tale. Through them, others find their way in.
Jeremy Renner is terrific as a hard-charging, idealistic mayor; Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) is a willing, sleazy "victim;" Louis C.K. is the embattled, common-sense-peddling FBI boss whom Richie crosses; and Jack Huston is a mob lieutenant.
Jennifer Lawrence is Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving's wife, an unstable child bride who was a single mom when she married him. Rosalyn is the juiciest character of the lot, a Martha Mitchell for this Watergate scandal, a loony loose cannon who cluelessly acts on every impulse — and her favorite impulse is to hurt the husband she knows is cheating on her.
American Hustle is about over-reaching, about a sting that grows more dubious and more dangerous the more people it ensnares. Irving, blackmailed by the feds, can see this. Sydney, playing all the angles, worries. But Richie charges on, a lunatic on some sort of hang-'em-all mission. And he has his eye on Lady Edith.
Cooper gives Richie an antic dizziness, which really pays off in his confrontations with the hapless, put-upon Louis C.K. Bale plays Irving without a hint of vanity and cagey, overmatched resignation, a man who no longer is "in control" of his scams or his women.
Lawrence is getting the lion's share of the Oscar buzz for her nasal-voiced, self-absorbed idiot, a happy drunk and a young woman jaded beyond her years. But Adams crackles with bitter longing in scene after scene. Lawrence has the showier moments in their confrontations, but Adams makes their scenes work.
The disco decadence, the seedy era before Times Square became a theme park, the lowered expectations of an endless recession, everything that was then and is now make up American Hustle. That's what makes this the best movie of this holiday season.
R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence. Sony/Columbia. 2:18. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.