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"American Hustle" schemes, smoulders

By By Michelle Solomon, Contributing writer
Published On: Dec 20 2013 02:40:01 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 01 2014 04:25:47 PM CST
American Hustle

Atlas Entertainment

"American Hustle" is a glorious film. Part "GoodFellas," part "Casino," but with an originality all its own, David O' Russell's 1970s era black comedy is a fictionalized account of some real dealings that ended up putting high-ranking New Jersey politicos behind bars and led to an investigation of entrapment tactics used by the FBI.

Known as Abscam, Russell and screenwriter Eric Singer fatten up the story about an elaborate FBI sting that ensnared members of Congress, a U.S. Senator from New Jersey, and three Philadelphia councilmen. Phony Arab sheiks, fake artwork, and Atlantic City casino license fraud, plus plenty of bribes were part of what was discovered as a scam within a scam. "Some of this really happened," teases the opening title.

Personally insecure, but professionally overbloated, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a Neanderthal from the Bronx, who punctuates sentences with words like babe – the kind of guy who spends hours on his comb over and fashions himself as a player. Bale is unrecognizable having gained 40-plus pounds for the role. Like "GoodFellas," Russell has his main character fill in the back story gaps with voiceover. We see the roots of Rosenfeld's fast-buck ways as he tells tales of growing up, helping his father's glass installation business boom by smashing windows to create demand.

There is controversy over Russell's sanitizing the facts and in his portrayal of Rosenfeld as a likeable con man. Detractors say the character, based on real scammer Mel Weinberg, was, in fact, not likeable at all, but a dirty double-dealing crook.

Like the characters in Russell's last two movies, "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter," scrappy characters go for broke to achieve their dreams. Rosenfeld wraps it up in a nice fortune cookie line when verbalizes what swindling means to him: "It's the about the art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and dreams on."

The con who most typifies this and with the most spunk in "Hustle" is Amy Adams's Sydney Prosser. Adams wraps herself around the role like the used mink she corrals from a rack at Irving's dry cleaning store. Adams plays Sydney with a certain wink that gives the leading lady more depth than anyone else in the film. When Russell's camera closes in on her steely blue eyes on the verge of tears, there's insight without a word being spoken.

Jennifer Lawrence is the other femme fatale in the Russell masterpiece as Rosenfeld's needy, passive-aggressive wife, Rosalyn. She plays it like a mobster's girlfriend, her Joisey accent oozing when she describes her perfume as well as her own personality. "Historically, the best perfumes in the world are all laced with something nasty." She's based on Weinberg's wife, Marie, who ended up committing suicide after the Abscam blow up.

As the man in the middle of it all, Bradley Cooper conjures every fiber of outrageousness as FBI agent Richie DiMaso. When he's trying finagle his boss out of giving him funds to take over an entire floor of a luxury hotel, Cooper's ready to burst. When he smashes the guy in the face with a rotary telephone, he's exploded. Russell was able to bring out the best in Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook," but with this role, he helps him to even top that manic portrayal. Another A-lister, Jeremy Renner plays Camden Mayor Carmine Polito with heart and soul — a naïve, do-gooder, and man of the people who is proud of his roots. He's the guy you went to high school with who never left his hometown.

Russell's film is an Oscar contender because of its ensemble, and its smart style, but also because of its seething commentary on the human soul. Russell's film is less about Abscam and more about the risks humans take to find satisfaction. "American Hustle" isn't just a movie about swindling, it embodies everything about trust, contradiction and the games people play.