“American Hustle,” which opened today in theaters, spends a lot of time with voiceovers explaining the background of the 2 main characters, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sidney Prosser (Amy Adams). This helps to ground the film as it tells a very complicated story about the ABSCAM operation run by the Long Island, New York, FBI office in the late 1970’s. The operation, as portrayed (fictionally) in the movie, consists of a bribery sting against the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, several Congressmen and one Senator. The film focuses mainly on the relationships and possible love triangle between Sidney and either Irving or FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
The main supporting cast for the film features Irving’s neglected wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and the well-meaning Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) of Camden. Despite requiring cooperation and teamwork from Irving, Sidney, Richie and the FBI office, this comedy of errors maintains its tension by continually throwing complications at the audience, and making the romance a strong counterweight to the sting plot. As a result, the main showdown in the film involves a cameo appearance by Robert De Niro, who plays vicious mobster Victor Tellegio in an uncredited appearance.
Amy Adams does a wonderful and deep turn as Sidney, who morphs into an English noblewoman named Lady Edith (with an English accent) to reel in and impress suckers falling for her and Irving’s cons. Christian Bale’s Irving has a heart condition, which becomes both funny and overwhelmingly sad as the tension mounts in the film. When the FBI busts Irving and Sidney’s loan scam operation, the couple are forced to help entrap politicians into taking bribes. They first ensnare Mayor Carmine, but when Irving finds he genuinely likes the guy, he contemplates playing both sides of the scam.
Irving should be happy enough to play the con game for the rest of his life, and he doesn’t care much for Rosalyn. But he loves Rosalyn’s young son and won’t leave her. Sidney, feeling that Irving will never commit to her, gravitates towards Richie. But she’s a con artist through and through, just like Irving, and it’s hard to believe she’d actually fall for an FBI agent. In addition, Richie is not a very sympathetic character; he’s pushy, arrogant and sometimes violent. Once, he even knocks Irving’s carefully placed toupee off his head.
Some of the action seems ad libbed, particularly Rosalyn’s scenes alone in her apartment (especially when she sings Wing’s “Live and Let Die.”), and scenes involving Richie and his FBI boss Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C. K.) at the FBI office. Director Russell said he improvised much of the film, but Richie and Stoddard banter in a way that seems forced and later they engage in some not very plausible slapstick humor. However, the movie skillfully uses the Rosalyn character at just the right moments to throw the plot off, and defines her early as a “train wreck” that won’t let Irving go.
Director David O. Russell, who wrote the film with Eric Singer, uses a lot of closeups and a wide screen. In fact, in 2-shots, the character slightly in the background is often out of focus. So, even though American Hustle is a period piece taking place in the 1970’s, there didn’t seem to be much need for period detail other than clothing and a few office furnishings. Anything else would be out of focus or offscreen. I found the music by Danny Elfman to be very effective, and the movie successfully uses hit songs from the era, such as The Bee Gees version of Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” to heighten the emotional impact.