Never mind the cocaine. When I remember the 1970s, I think of roller disco: dense crowds of people jacked high off the floor on their four-wheeled boots, zooming, teetering, slipping in and out of control as they showed off for one another. That’s the dizzying sensation that David O. Russell keeps spinning you into in his deliriously enjoyable American Hustle, a combo caper film, romantic comedy and political satire based on the FBI’s 1978 Abscam operation. How loosely based, only a disco pedestrian would ask. As the opening title says, “Some of this actually happened.”
So much garrulous energy comes spilling out of the movie that before the plot can get well under way, three different voiceovers are already competing for your attention. The first gives the viewpoint of Irving Rosenfeld, a Bronx-born con artist who deals in paintings that are fraudulent and usurious loans that somehow never get made. He also owns a chain of dry-cleaning shops. The second voiceover is that of Sydney Prosser, a former stripper from Albuquerque who moved to New York, got a job at Cosmopolitan magazine (hello, Burt Reynolds!) and rose high enough in society to be invited to a party on Long Island, where she and Irving lock eyes. Though Sydney has the luck to look just like Amy Adams, while Irving looks like Christian Bale with a prosthetic potbelly, an appalling comb-over and a pair of tinted aviator eyeglasses that keep slipping down his nose, she falls for him, and he for her. Soon they’re running cons together, with Sydney (shades of The Lady Eve) putting on three-fifths of an English accent and calling herself Lady Edith.
The third voiceover comes from Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent who busts Sydney and Irving for loan-sharking but offers to have the charges dropped if they’ll run some cons for him so he can catch a better class of criminal. Also, as soon as he saw Sydney he liked her, he means liked her, and wanted to help her get away from Irving, as he explains at 300 words a minute. That’s because Richie looks like Bradley Cooper with a beard and Jheri curls and acts like Bradley Cooper during his manic episodes in Silver Linings Playbook.
I have not yet explained Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, who does not get her own voiceover but arguably does not need one, having been graced with the looks of a bouffant-topped and intensively manicured Jennifer Lawrence, whose murderous conversational style casts her as a sort of female Gallipoli, standing helpless before Irving’s naval assault. Rosalyn does not like Sydney. Sydney does not like Rosalyn. The fact that two such women should not just love but compete over a hunched, wheezing mess like Irving is both an unacknowledged joke in American Hustle and a complicating factor in the FBI sting operation.
There are plenty of complicating factors, including Irving’s sympathy for the first target of the operation (the salt-of-the-earth mayor of Camden, New Jersey), Sydney’s wavering conviction that she’s merely playing Richie when she encourages his attentions, and Richie’s self-image as a heroic rule-breaker, a delusion that is entirely functional in this setting and leads him to raise the stakes again and again. Did I mention that the bait in Richie’s scheme, a phony Arab sheik (actually Special Agent Paco Hernandez), is supposedly going to invest in casino gambling? Would it surprise you if the prospect of casino gambling elicited an appearance from another member of Russell’s growing stock company, Robert De Niro? The trouble escalates.