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Monday, Dec. 23, 2013

American Hustle

Confidence Games, Bribery and Love Triangles

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We meet Irving (Christian Bale) in a hotel room mirror, pasting a toupee over his thinning hair and topping it with hairspray to make things stick. Irving’s vanity is a deception tied to a yen for recreating himself as the raconteur he’d love to be. And to get to that place, he became a con artist; and then, to save himself from prison, the con man turned informer.

Irving is one in a trio of American Hustle’s leading characters—make that a triangle, given the lustful jealousy that sparks and threatens to burn all contenders. American Hustle’s backdrop is an actual series of largely forgotten events from the Carter administration dubbed Abscam, a bizarre bribery sting that took down six members of Congress and a U.S. Senator as well as local officials. “Some of this actually happened,” states the droll opening subtitle, setting a tone of comedy stiffened by a dose of drama.

Almost unrecognizable under his beard, hairpiece and tinted aviator glasses, Bale loses himself in the role of a social climber from the boroughs on the verge of making it. He is the protagonist at the story’s center, despite some point of view-shifting monologues and scene-stealing competition from his two costars. Irving’s partner in crime, Sydney aka Edith (Amy Adams) is a kindred spirit whose dream “was to become anyone else but who I was.” They run a fraudulent investment firm with an idea borrowed from Bernie Madoff: they made their racket more desirable by saying “No” to potential clients. Manhattan was their playground, like an idyll from a Woody Allen musical, until they were busted by Richie (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent who also had a dream of making a name for himself. The agent’s pin-curled hair connects his false-front aspirations to Irving, and the two men are yoked together in desire for Sydney. “I’m going to make Richie think I want him,” she explains to Irving, who isn’t too sure where her inclinations are headed. Who can trust anyone? Irving’s a con man with a fetching but shrill-tongued wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who adds another dimension of complication as he works with Sydney and Richie to entrap politicians in a scam involving briefcases full of cash and a fake Arab sheik.

A lesser director than the sometimes on, sometimes off David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) would have used Abscam’s post-Watergate corruption as an excuse to revel in all things ’70s. Russell gets the look and some of the vibe. Idealism had faded from pop culture, leaving only hedonism; everything was just a touch excessive; the lapels were too wide, the neckties too toxic in hue, the hair a bit overdone. But American Hustle also investigates the ethics of coercion and entrapment—of dangling an apple in front of someone and busting him if he bites. Pathos is introduced when a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), a family man and genuine public servant, becomes the unwitting engine of Richie’s scheme. Irving feels sorry for the mayor, who became his buddy in the course of all the wheeling and dealing. So do we.

American Hustle often looks and sounds like mid-period Martin Scorsese, a GoodFellas with the Mob as peripheral players in its particular game of corruption. Bale’s motor-mouthed Irving channels Robert De Niro as he contemplates the endemic falsehood of the world. Everyone is conning everyone else. Most of us are even more adept at conning ourselves.

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