It has more in common with the small-time scruffiness of “The Flim-Flam Man” than the sophisticated slickness of “The Sting,” but “American Hustle” definitely rates a prominent spot in the grand tradition of con-man movies.
It’s the serious lack of sophistication, in fact, the sense that none of the players are really competent enough to handle the increasingly out-of-control high-stakes scam they’re involved in, that makes “Hustle” simultaneously harrowing, hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt.
“Hustle” is loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970s, in which the FBI partnered with a convicted con man to bust a handful of federal legislators for taking bribes. And that’s where director David O. Russell’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “Silver Linings Playbook” begins, with an initial attempt by con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, amazing), his partner/paramour Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, ditto) and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to bribe New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) has miserably failed — spurring a series of multiple-perspective flashbacks. If “Hustle” has a problem worth mentioning, it’s the somewhat convoluted, time-shifting plot structure Russell uses to tell the story but, then again, with a story this complex, what else?
A jump back in time gives us a quick sketch of the lives of Irving and Sydney at the point where they meet and fall in love. Irving’s a pot-bellied dry-cleaning store owner who deals in forged art on the side (and obsesses over an elaborately glued hairpiece) and Sydney’s a former stripper from Albuquerque who affects an upper-class English accent. For awhile, they run a successful small-time scam bilking businessmen out of fees for English bank loans that never materialize, until DiMaso busts them and decides to use Irving’s connections to entrap bigger white-collar crooks. Only he’s fallen for Sydney, which complicates the situation.
And that’s just for starters because Irving, who genuinely loves Sydney, is also devoted to his adopted son and loyal to his neurotic, manipulative, tackily sexy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, terrific). Which means Sydney, who’s nothing if not a survivor, might or might not be shifting her loyalties toward DiMaso, despite the fact that he puts his hair in curlers, wears a gold medallion and isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. A fact he demonstrates by forcing them into a half-baked and increasingly dangerous sting involving a phony Arab sheik millionaire, federal-level political payoffs and, eventually, the mob (represented by Robert De Niro in a truly sinister cameo).
Russell eventually builds “Hustle” up to an impressive level of suspense, but the unexpectedly intimate character relationships are what make it rich — like the friendship that develops between guilt-stricken Irving and the basically decent Mayor Polito. Everyone’s hustling everyone else in this movie, but with varying degrees of ruthlessness.
Irving’s a flat-out treacherous liar and thief, for example, but does that make him a bad guy? Well, yes it does, but at least he has a twinge of conscience. And he doesn’t put his hair in curlers.
Then again, he doesn’t really have any.