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Movie Review: The Cons the Thing in American Hustle

By Phillip Thompson

When a con man says, “Always take the favor over money,” you know a con is coming.

So goes American Hustle, David O. Russell’s latest piece of directorial brilliance.

Based loosely on the FBI’s sting operation ABSCAM of the early 1970s (the movie opens with a title screen reading, “Some of this actually happened”), American Hustle takes what was, at the time, the FBI’s first sting operation in an effort to lure government officials into taking bribes from a mysterious Arab sheikh to establish a gambling mecca in New Jersey, and breaks it down to its basic element: a con game.

Christian Bale, in what seems like his 40th movie of the year, and Amy Adams star in what is billed as a drama, but has more than its share of comedic moments along the way. Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, who owns a chain of New York City dry cleaning stores, but makes his real money selling stolen art and running a loan con game as old and simple as the hills. He meets Sydney (Adams), a fetching redhead with laser-beam blue eyes looking for a better life. She finds it in Rosenfeld, who brings her into the game, which they quickly refine to bilk desperate people out of thousands of dollars.

When one of their “customers” turns out to be FBI agent Richie Dimaso (Bradley Cooper sporting a spectacular ’70s perm), they realize they are well and truly fucked—unless they cooperate with the Feds.

Russell puts a lot of effort into the first act, setting up not only Rosenfeld’s dilemma, but bringing these characters to life. Rosenfeld is married to the delightfully batshit crazy (and smoking hot) Rosalyn (the always delightful Jennifer Lawrence), whose son Danny he has adopted. Dimaso has gigantic ambitions, which include getting inside the unbelievably low-cut dresses of Sydney. But Dimaso, we learn, isn’t the smooth, noble G-man he presents himself to be. He lives with his mom, has a fiancée he refuses to acknowledge, and couldn’t give a shit about playing by the rules. His offer to Rosenfeld and Sydney is simple: help him make four busts, and they’re free. His Big Idea: use a con man to bag con men. Simple, right?

Except that Dimaso quickly learns that he can lure elected officials into accepting bribes with one of Rosenfeld’s plays. And his top target is the mayor of Camden, N.J., Carmine Palito, played by Jeremy Renner—who looks like he should play lead guitar for the ’70s punk band The Romantics.

Russell, who directed Cooper, Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro in Silver Linings Playbook and Bale and Adams in The Fighter, turns a grand second act, and you can feel the caper spinning out of control like the disco dance floor covered in booze and coke. The pressure of an increasingly elaborate con that ultimately includes a dangerous meeting with serious Miami casino mob badass—DeNiro (who else?)—somehow pales in comparison to the face-to-face (really face-to-face!) showdown between Adams and Lawrence.

And in the end, you don’t see the real con coming until it’s too late.

American Hustle is one of those spectacular period pieces that makes you forget how shitty the excess, the corruption, the cynicism and the mania of the 1970s were, anchored by superb performances by the entire cast. Adams flat-out steals the movie, playing Sydney with a sexy savagery that makes your skin crawl. And if there were an Oscar category for “Best Cleavage,” she’d win by unanimous consent. Bales is a study in neurotic pathos as the matchstick man who knows that the secret of success is keeping it simple, impossible to do with the two women who complicate his life. Cooper’s coked-out, overreaching FBI agent is a master at facade, but as short on foresight as his boss (played beautifully by Louis C.K.). Together, they are the epitome of the ’70s—on the hustle.

Luckily, the only people not getting hustled are the ones in the theater.

Phillip Thompson, a native of East Mississippi, is a combat veteran and former journalist, among other things. His published works include one non-fiction book (Into the Storm: A U.S. Marine in the Persian Gulf War) and three novels (Enemy Within, A Simple Murder and Deep Blood). His short fiction has appeared in The Review and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He lives in Virginia. Find him online at his blog, Pulpwood Fiction.