“American Hustle”
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. She helps Irving 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 Chicago ) in Arab headdress and calling him a Shiek Abdullah and borrowing a corporate jet to imply he’s rich, then trying to fool New Jersey 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. Irving 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, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas