David O. Russell is a director on a hot streak, an audacious original with an affinity for edgy American madness. His dizzying, outlandishly entertaining “American Hustle” is a 21-first century screwball farce about 20th-century con men, scam artists and those who dream of living large, a film that is big hearted and off the wall in equal measure.
As he demonstrated in his previous two pictures, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” out of control people are Russell’s specialty. Like a cowboy working in the biggest of corrals, he lets his characters roam as far and wide as they please before reining them in with perfect control at the close.
In this film, Russell has surrounded himself with actors he’s worked with before — Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter” and Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper from “Silver Linings” — and gone for broke. More specifically, he’s cannily used performers who excel at disappearing into their roles to play people who disappear with equal facility into their bogus identities.
Being a Russell regular is not for the faint of heart. The director/co-writer makes a habit of standing just off camera and firing new lines at his actors while filming is going on. Once they get used to it, the performers involved say it’s an exhilarating experience, and Russell’s overall gift for immediacy leads to films that feel like they’re happening right there in front of us.
“American Hustle” began life with very different expectations. It started with a straight-ahead true crime script by Eric Warren Singer (Russell’s co-screenwriter) that dealt specifically with the details of Abscam, a late 1970s FBI sting operation that led to bribery convictions for a U.S. senator and several members of the House.
Using that reality as a taking off point, Russell became interested in constructing fictitious characters and situations inspired as much by his imagination and inclinations as the actual Abscam shenanigans. “Some of this actually happened,” is the line that appears on screen to start things off, and it sets the tone perfectly.
So back we go to 1978, to the era of gold chains, aviator sunglasses, outlandish clothes and hair that just wouldn’t quit. In fact, the first scene we see has paunchy, balding Irving Rosenfeld (a completely unrecognizable Bale) painstakingly constructing the most elaborate hairpiece west of Asbury Park.
Rosenfeld may look unprepossessing, but in fact he has great gifts as a con artist as well as a willingness to do whatever it takes to survive. “American Hustle” briefly introduces him and his partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Adams), a seductive woman prone to wearing as little as the law allows, in the midst of an especially stressful operation before flashing back to how their collaboration began.
Thrown together at a Long Island pool party, this larcenous pair bond over a shared passion for Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues” as well as a birds-of-a-feather mutual belief in the absolute necessity of reinvention. As Prosser puts it, “my dream was to become anyone other than who I was.”
Making use of Prosser’s alternate identity as Lady Edith Greenleigh, complete with English accent, these two form London Associates and become quite successful grifters. They also become lovers, even though Rosenfeld is already married to the slightly unhinged Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, all in as usual), a woman he admiringly describes as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate. I was her mark.”
This slightly unbalanced apple cart is completely upset when Rosenfeld and Prosser have the unhappy experience of being busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). He has grandiose intentions of going after other white collar criminals, and sees his new victims as pawns essential in getting that operation off the ground.
DiMaso is something of an unhinged hustler himself. The delusions of FBI glory that dance in his head combine with the attraction he feels for Sydney and the complexities of Irving’s marriage to loose cannon Rosalyn to create disturbances in the field. These ensnare even nominally normal people like good guy New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, playing against type) who is the focus of DiMaso’s plans.
Working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and production designer Judy Becker, Russell completely realizes this mad mad world, and has peopled it with fine actors (Mary Vernieu and Lindsay Graham did the casting) from “the feet up,” as the movie would have it. Worth noting aside from the stars are Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s FBI superior, Colleen Camp as a key bureau operative and “Silver Linings” veteran Robert De Niro, who seems to do his best work for Russell, as a mafia chief who’d as soon kill you as look at you.
In the real world, the protagonists of “American Hustle” are not individuals you’d want to spend quality time with, but Russell has the gift of making them seem just like us. It’s ambition that unites these people, that gets them in over their heads chasing dreams bigger than they can pay for. Can love, of all things, give them a shot at making themselves whole? Tune in and find out.
MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: At Landmark, West Los Angeles, AMC Century City