Movie review: Accomplished acting and ’70s fashion shine in quirky crime drama ‘American Hustle’

Bursting with humor, great acting and David O. Russell’s abundant filmmaking talent, “American Hustle” is a joy to watch.

Russell uses all the tricks – voiceover, zooms, dissolves, an evocative 1970s rock soundtrack. But they don’t feel like tricks. They feel alive and engaging, drawing us into a story loosely based on the FBI’s “Abscam” corruption sting.

That sting involved a con man, a fake sheikh and U.S. lawmakers taking bribes. That such a colorful tale has inspired Russell’s most entertaining, cohesive film to date does not surprise.

The indie director behind “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting With Disaster” went more commercial with 2010’s “The Fighter” and last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” but forgot to tell his oddball sensibility. He emphasized those films’ weirder parts – the tough-sister chorus in “Fighter,” Bradley Cooper’s garbage-bag active wear in “Linings” –to a distracting degree.

With this material, Russell doesn’t need to highlight quirks. They’re built into the story. This allows Russell, who co-wrote with Eric Singer, to maintain a consistent goofy-sexy tone throughout, emphasizing character development over the actual sting because there’s only so much excitement to be drawn from seeing lawmakers surreptitiously grab money-filled suitcases.

“Hustle” showcases actors now part of a Russell repertory: Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter” and Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from “Playbook.” All four are so good it’s hard to pick a favorite.

Bale even is funny, though the humor usually is drawn indirectly from his character, a dry cleaner, forged-art seller and loan-scam artist named Irving. Like Richie DiMaso (Cooper), the excitable FBI man who leans on Irving and his mistress/accomplice, Sydney (Adams), to help with the Abscam sting, Irving’s just so passionate that much of what he says comes off as funny.

Irving is based on a real figure in the Abscam operation, which led to the convictions of six congressmen and a U.S. senator. But Russell is not telling the whole story here, nor the real story, as he makes clear at film’s start with this refreshing disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened.”

Absolving the film of the authenticity burden opens it up to more fun. Russell also quickly distances the picture’s 1970s East Coast criminal milieu from inevitable Scorsese comparisons.

“Hustle,” which starts with Irving performing an elaborate comb-over routine in front of a mirror, is more overtly comical than Scorsese’s crime films. The music leans more Steely Dan than Rolling Stones, and the lead characters are not sociopaths. Irving and his mistress, Sydney, truly care for each other.

The comb-over scene reveals that Irving’s fakeries are many but also that Bale can gain weight, ruin his hair and wear velvet suits and still be attractive.

Sydney meets Irving at a pool party, where he leads with his exposed paunch. She falls for him anyway, and you see why. Irving thinks she’s smart, and tells her so, often. Bale exudes more kindness and sincerity as a tacky criminal than he ever did as Bruce Wayne.

Alluring in a flowing hairstyle and revealing halter dresses, Adams shows how meeting Irving has invigorated Sydney. Like him, she loves to reinvent herself. Before she joined Sydney, she was a burlesque dancer and a Cosmopolitan magazine flunkie.

Adams makes it clear, at Sydney’s lower moments, that this woman’s base level is self-loathing. Anything above that is an improvement. And Irving’s loan-scam business appeals to the same desire to perform that once had Sydney in tassels.

Sydney adopts a British persona to sell their con, in which businessmen desperate for loans put up $5,000 for what is supposed to be a $50,000 return. Furs and wrap dresses left behind by Irving’s dry-cleaning customers complete Sydney’s classy look.

Irving wants to divorce his young wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence). But Rosalyn, to whom Lawrence lends reckless verve and sun-lamp-fueled audacity, threatens to expose Irving’s crimes if he tries. She also would keep her young son, whom Irving adopted, from his father.

In Lawrence’s sparkly, dangerous performance, you see why Irving first wanted Rosalyn (Lawrence is stunning in her ’70s hair and outfits) and why he now wants Sydney instead.

Irving’s bond with Sydney likely is considerably sweeter than that of their real-life counterparts. But that’s fine, because it grounds this busy film emotionally. So does Jeremy Renner’s nuanced performance as the mayor of Camden, N.J., a guy who truly wants to help his constituents but has grown too accustomed to asking unsavory characters to assist him in doing it.

Sydney and Irving meet the mayor as part of the Abscam sting, after FBI agent DiMaso busts up the couple’s loan-scam operation. In exchange for their freedom, they agree to help the FBI nab other white-collar crooks.

Reviving his live-wire act from “Linings,” Cooper plays DiMaso as clearly in over his (sometimes perm-rodded) head with a sting operation that keeps expanding in scope. Cooper puts every emotion out there for the camera to pick up. He’s mesmerizing.

The sting, which involves an American posing as a sheikh (the FBI code name “Abscam” was short for “Abdul scam”) interested in rebuilding Atlantic City, first nets the mayor, who leads authorities to other lawmakers.

The ins and outs of the FBI operation slow down “Hustle.” But there’s always something to hold audience interest, whether it’s disco lights or Lawrence’s pile of hair. The costume and production design are just showy enough to suit the film’s characters and time frame.

The three-piece disco suits are on point, but the most evocative vintage piece is an early microwave oven. The oven gets its own story line and immediately returns the audience to a more innocent time. At least technologically.


* * * * 

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner

Director: David O. Russell

138 minutes

Rated R (pervasive language, some sexual content, brief violence)