A larky, anarchic life force runs through “American Hustle,” David O. Russell’s screwball homage to the strivers and connivers who wreak playful havoc with what could easily have been a straight-up, if antic, FBI procedural. Notionally based on the 1978 Abscam investigation, wherein an FBI sting used fake Arab sheiks to ferret out corruption within the ranks of Congress and local jurisdictions, “American Hustle” cheerfully jettisons any pretense of historical accuracy or journalistic shoe-leather.
The film opens on Christian Bale, unrecognizable behind a prodigiously flabby belly, meticulously arranging a toupee and comb-over while the New York news radio chatters in the background. It’s an otherwise silent masterpiece of real-time self-invention, which isn’t subtext as much as the text of Russell’s fanciful story about characters who construct identities out of whole cloth, not just to deceive but to give themselves the existential juice it takes to get through another day.
Bale plays a con artist named Irving Rosenfeld, a Bronx-born sharpie who deals in fake loans and forged art, using a dry-cleaning business to launder his dirty money. When Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams), they find immediate fellowship in worshipping Duke Ellington and harboring hearts full of larceny.
Once Irving and Sydney cross paths with an ambitious FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the game is afoot, and the three embark on an increasingly elaborate folly during which their shifting personas and motivations come into question. Russell expertly peels back the layers of the characters’ “real” lives, doling out information in stingy, delicious dollops. As he’s done in “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell follows his rogues’ gallery closely, his fluid, discreetly observant Steadicam following just behind.
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Bale, Adams and Cooper develop a credible, explosively volatile chemistry in “American Hustle,” and Bale is particularly heroic in his portrayal of a blubbery white whale of a man trying to shake that last harpoon. But the film is filled with terrific supporting performances as well — Jeremy Renner as a pompadoured New Jersey mayor, Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s beleaguered superior at the FBI and Jennifer Lawrence as a voluptuous, daffy 1970s housewife.
Russell is so entranced by his characters that he films them like the stars of an old-school musical. But at times, Russell’s exuberance gets the better of him: He’s prone to over-relying on music to sell a scene, and the reference-upon-reference layering can be exhausting. But Russell is content to keep it light, preferring to see even his most cracked characters as dreamers in search of the genuine article. “American Hustle” may have taken its inspiration from the art of the steal, but it has a heart of pure, if slightly tarnished, gold.