And your host, Mr. Johnny Carson
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr. 18 min.
The author and journalist Max Lerner once said, “History is written by the survivors.” In this spirit, American Hustle, director David O. Russell’s fictionalization on the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 80s, is itself a cinematic hustle. Indeed, it’s unwittingly coincidental that the title of screenwriter Eric Warren Singer’s original spec script was American Bullshit.
Starting in 1978, John Good and Tony Amoroso, two New York-based FBI agents, launched Abcam in order to root out political corruption. They utilized the services of Mel Weinberg, a con man and FBI informant, and an ersatz Arab sheik (actually an undercover FBI agent). The operation eventually led to 19 convictions, including seven members of Congress. It also garnered criticism over the bureau’s tactics and, notably, the duplicity of Weinberg and his coitre of cohorts, including his wife Marie and mistress Evelyn Knight.
In Jan. 1982, as Marie was publicly blowing the whistle on alleged fraud perpetrated by Weinberg and law enforcement officials during Abscam (and with Weinberg and those same officials negotiating a movie deal involving director Louis Malle), Marie was found dead in a Florida condo after apparently hanging her herself.
Russell’s rewrite of Singer’s screenplay changes the real-life participants to fictionalized characters and conflates the story into a zany black comedy. With Weinberg still alive and living in Florida, and both Good and Amoroso consulting on the new film, it’s not coincidental that Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), Weinberg’s cinematic doppelganger, is a brilliant, slovenly scalawag who loves his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) and his adopted son, harbors a heart of gold beneath his disreputable doings, and is harried by his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a gorgeous dingbat and floozy.
Yet, creative license and one-sided storytelling has always been the province of cinema, from Nanook of the North to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino. Indeed, the framework of Russell’s American Hustle—competing narrations from colorful characters; elaborate Steadicam sequences; an eclectic vintage soundtrack; a darkly comedic depiction of the criminal underworld—is an unabashed, borderline shameless Scorsese homage (indeed, a Raging Bull-style intro and an uncredited appearance by a famous Scorsese regular as a lieutenant to Mafia boss Meyer Lansky drives home the emulation).
Still, there are far worse auteurs to ape, and the notoriously tempestuous Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, Three Kings) is an accomplished filmmaker. Indeed, the nuances and non sequiturs in a Russell script fly at the audience with the speed, dexterity and unpredictability of a technically proficient pugilist.
And according to published reports, Russell’s actors feel similarly bludgeoned. But an uncanny symbiosis exists between Russell and his adroit cast, particularly Bale, Adams and Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso, an ambitious, madcap G-man based on Amoroso. Jeremy Renner plays Carmine Polito, the earnest but shady mayor of Camden, N.J. whose early corrupt involvement in Abscam blazes a trail that eventually leads to bigger political marks. Only the otherwise talented Lawrence is miscast as Rosalyn, a streetwise yet world-weary woman whose backstory is unsuited to a 23-year-old ingenue.
The marriage between director, script and cast generates a jaunty glimpse at the historical nexus between Watergate and the greed decade of the 1980s. Cops and prosecutors longingly hope to leverage the specter of government corruption (real or otherwise) for professional advancement. Meanwhile, a cadre of nefarious con artists are poised for the decadence ushered by Reaganomics. “F**kin’ Jimmy Carter,” both Irv and Sydney mutter at one point.
Russell’s haze of verbosity sometimes stunts the narrative progression. Moreover, Russell untangles the complex relationships he conjures in overly tidy fashion, particularly the Irv, Syd and Richie triangle, while convenient contrition and redemption resolves Irv’s shoehorned kinship with Carmine. On the other hand, maybe this is the history the film wants to tell, and the hustle at the center of American Hustle is just a grift that’s still being played today. After all, as Irv Rosenfeld conspicuously points out, “People believe what they want to believe.”
*Originally published at Indyweek.com