Writer/director David O. Russell has a knack for preserving his very offbeat voice, even in his higher-budget Hollywood endeavors. This is a guy whose first film, “Spanking the Monkey” (1994), was a sort-of-comedy about mother/son incest, not really the most obvious ticket to studio employment. Since then, he's done six features; all but one (2010's “The Fighter”) are comedies at heart, even when they're about topics like Desert Storm (“Three Kings”) or the meaning of existence (“I Heart Huckabees”).
“American Hustle” is no exception. Russell and his writers have put together a fictionalized, largely comic version of Abscam, the '70s FBI sting that landed a senator and several congressmen in jail. (The designation “Abscam” is only heard once in the film, more than halfway in.)
Our gateway to the story is a dual voice-over, alternating between Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his business partner/paramour Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Together they run a profitable con: Desperate loan-hungry marks pay them $5,000 each for access to alleged European banking connections. Access, of course, is not quite the same as a guarantee; the victims have no recourse when the loan never materializes (which is always the case).
After the pair finally slips up, their only way to avoid jail is to help FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) nail gangsters — and eventually politicians — through a bogus casino development deal. But Richie is gaga over Syd and starts to go native, thinking more like a hustler than a cop. Still living with his vaguely grotesque mother, he gets hooked on the action, bringing a new manic temperament to his work and repeatedly conning his boss (a perfect Louis C.K.). This already teetering balance of personalities is further threatened both by the mostly honest nature of the politician they target (Jeremy Renner) and by the manipulations of Irv's estranged wife (Jennifer Lawrence), a whack job who could really use lithium or something.
While the film clearly parallels some of our current concerns about government intrusions into our lives, Russell is at least as interested in recreating the '70s in all its awful, fun-loving, tacky, disco-fied, and sometimes even more awful glory. From the pun embedded in the title — “hustle” as in con game and “Hustle” as in the popular dance that accompanied the ubiquitous rhythm of disco at its worst — to the font in the print ads to the hair styles, the film is the best approximation of the decade since “Boogie Nights.”
I'm ashamed to say that, at first rumor, I found the notion of Bale playing someone named Irving Rosenfeld risible. Yes, he was no less convincing as Bateman in “American Psycho” than as Batman's Batman. But Irv sounded distant from that whole range, far off on some perpendicular scale. I apologize for my lack of faith. Bale completely disappears into the role of a lower-middle-class New Yorker from the criminal fringe of the modern, urban, Jewish demographic. Irv may be a chiseler and a slick operator, but he's also an emotional punching bag for his wife, his lover, and the FBI — a sad sack, who's just savvy enough to know he's being pulled in way over his head — all of which enlists our sympathies.
The rest of the cast is equally on the mark. Cooper's transformation into a supercharged loon — a scarier version of his chemically hyped character in “Limitless” — is a distillation of law enforcement run amok. Adams doesn't seem obvious casting for a frosty femme fatale, but she pulls it off. Renner and Lawrence are no less effective; and Louis C.K. calmly steals the few scenes he's in.
As the story careens toward its climax, adding so many twists that no one — on or off the screen — can quite keep up, “American Hustle” resembles nothing so much as the novels of Richard Condon (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “Winter Kills”) — comic nightmares too outlandish to be believed, even as they track the real world exactly.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).