This movie is like “The Sting,”
where you find yourself rooting for the con artists.
Except we’re not nearly as courtly in demeanor as that 1973 film
classic, rated PG. “American
Hustle” deserves its R-rating, because the people talk like, well, you would
expect crooks to talk to each other.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is one
of those sleazy-looking New York con artists who runs an investment
scam/pyramid scheme, the proceeds of which have allowed him to buy a couple of
legit dry cleaners, just to be able to cook the books.
And, on the side, mostly out of his own apartment, he does a brisk
little clandestine business of selling art work that is either duplicated or
stolen, so the profits are high, but he knows he can’t get too greedy.
He’s trying to fly under the radar, and not run afoul of either the
Law or the Mob. He’s married, he has
a kid (he adopted hers from a previous relationship), and though his wife,
Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is crass, lazy, and quarrelsome, still, the makeup
is almost worth the fights. And then he
meets Sydney (Amy Adams), and his world is suddenly turned upside down.
He can’t get enough of being around
her. It turns out that her background
is as rough as his; she’s a former topless dancer who’s decided to try to
convert her natural good looks into something less sleazy and more lucrative.
expand both the investment and the art scams. He
lavishes her with expensive clothes---OK, some of them were carelessly left
and forgotten at his dry cleaners, but who’s complaining?
She now wears the kind of provocative outfits that sufficiently
distract men to make them not think too much about the details of the business
transactions that are scamming them. But
the sexy act is really just a tease; Sydney and Irving have actually decided
that they love each other and want to just go live a normal life together
somewhere, but there are certain complications right now.
And another just entered the room.
Their latest victim of the investment
scam, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), turns out to be an undercover FBI agent.
Busted. But being young,
energetic, and ambitious, Mr. DiMaso decides that he wants to use the
experienced con artistry of Irving and Sydney in order to lure some bigger
fish into the trap, in exchange, of course, for their immunity.
Sydney and Irving reluctantly decide to comply.
They don’t like not being in charge of the details.
And the plan keeps changing. DiMaso
has to report to a boss, of course, who insists on other agents being
involved. Some of the ploys are
downright laughable---dressing a Mexican, Paco Hernandez (Michael Pena, who
was actually born in
) in Arab headdress and calling him a Shiek Abdullah and borrowing a corporate
jet to imply he’s rich, then trying to fool
mobsters, who didn’t get to survive because they were stupid.
But their “marks” are eager to get
gambling casinos legalized on the East Coast, which involves bribing certain
politicians, some of whom believe they are sincerely serving their
constituents by taking that cash in the briefcase.
Of course, once the complex set of
subterfuges is set in motion, nothing goes quite according to plan.
has to endure having his wife and mistress in the same room with each other,
throwing eye daggers, and their mutual jealous rage makes them susceptible to
impulsive departures from their prescribed roles.
The FBI is only too eager to cooperate in the entrapment, as is the
young, ambitious, DA, but their over-aggressiveness makes them vulnerable to
unforeseen circumstances, as well.
It’s fun to watch it all unravel, but
at the end of the day, we find ourselves rooting for crooks with no
conscience, which is somewhat less than satisfying for the religious viewer.
There are some great performances, though, carried by a lively script
with just enough caustic humor to entertain. It’s
not pretty or charming. But it’s
fascinating, anyway, because it’s so engagingly done.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister,
Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas