“We believe what we want to believe,” Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a small-time con artist who deals in fake art, stolen goods, and bogus loans to hard-luck cases, tells FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
We do indeed. But let’s not believe that this outrageously entertaining master acting class is history as much as a shaggy dog story about how any of us can rationalize the unconscionable if we’re convinced we’re doing it for a good enough reason.
The year is 1978. The places: New York and New Jersey. Rosenfeld and his lover, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a stripper who has dug down to the real causes of Carter-era hyper-inflation, meets Rosenfeld at a party and a partnership in crime is born. Prosser, posing as Lady Edith Greensly, lures in strapped marks with the promise of loans from British banks. Of course, the money never materializes, but the “fee” for mediating the relationship between the nonexistent bank and the debt-ridden sucker is nonrefundable. “Just like my time,” Rosenfeld says.
One day that sucker just happens to be a federal agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who offers Rosenfeld and Prosser a deal: help the feds rope in four (count ’em) high-powered targets and they can go free.
Sydney smells a rat and wants to run ASAP, but Rosenfeld can’t abandon his wife (!) and adopted son so decides to play by DiMaso’s rules. But DiMaso has delusions of grandeur and sees an opportunity to start reeling in congressmen, even a senator, in what we soon realize to be ABSCAM, in which an American posed as an Arab sheik supposedly in town to spread some oil money around, with the FBI eager to see who can be entrapped into taking a bribe to grease the wheels necessary to get big deals rolling.
DiMaso’s FBI boss, a by-the-book sad sack named Stoddard Thorsen (played at just the right pitch by Louis C.K.), thinks DiMaso is heading for disaster and tries to head off outrageous demands for money and resources necessary to pull off these scams. Thorsen even tries to offer his charge some paternal advice by relating a story from childhood that involves his dad, his brother, and some inopportune ice fishing, but DiMaso continually cuts Stoddard off before he’s finished telling the tale because he assumes he knows what the moral is.
Except he doesn’t.
Among the fish DiMaso is looking to fry is the newly elected mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Polito is by all accounts an upstanding citizen, an honest guy who genuinely loves his constituency of mostly black and Hispanic Camdeans. In fact, he was instrumental in legalizing casino gambling in New Jersey for the sole purpose of bringing jobs to the state. Unfortunately, he has been having a helluva time convincing investors to build said casinos in Atlantic City. Nobody wants to go first.
That’s where the “sheik” comes in — supposedly willing to bankroll construction in Atlantic City. All the feds need is to get Polito taking the money from the emir and bingo-bango, Richie DiMaso’s a star.
What could go wrong? For one thing, Rosenfeld knows only too well that he managed to stay out of the reach of the law for as long as he had because he played it small. Prosser is so convinced this is destined to go badly for all involved that she’s playing at seducing Richie as a form of insurance. A man who still lives with his devout Catholic mother and who takes pride in the fact that his grandmother never once lied in her 96 years is not going to be easy to beguile, however. (Your laugh here.)
Thrown into this volatile mix is Rosenfeld’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a stay-at-home mom who has a gift for drama and who refuses to divorce Rosenfeld because nobody in her family ever gets divorced. Plus, she just hates change. “Sometimes I think I’ll die before I change,” she admits. Rosenfeld, for his part, is afraid that if he just walks away from the marriage he’ll never again get to see his adopted son, whom he adores.
There’s just one guest who’s yet to attend this party, and that’s the Mob. Nobody’s building a casino in New Jersey without the Mob’s aiding and abetting. And so our lower-echelon con artists and wannabe Eliot Ness are introduced to none other than a major made member of Meyer Lansky’s Miami crime fraternity — Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro). Tellegio wants to meet with this sheik who’s going to bankroll these casinos. The money may be coming from the Middle East, but only an American with a certain amount of muscle, and hustle, can control the unions and ensure that all licenses and permits are obtained without interference, and that money is skimmed to all the appropriate people in a professional manner.
Tellegio insists on two things: that $10 million be deposited in a bank by the sheik to be verified by his people, as a show of good faith, and that the sheik be made an American citizen. In a xenophobic society, it helps if all parties involved appear to have a stake in the American Dream.
And oh, by the way, if it turns out that this is not what it seems to be, well, people are going to get hurt. Namely Rosenfeld, who supposedly is bringing the sheik to Polito, and by extension to Tellegio. Rosenfeld’s wife and son are also in jeopardy.
All through this masquerade Polito has done his uttermost to make friends with Rosenfeld, to let Rosenfeld into his world and appreciate the values that animate the mayor, especially his love for his wife, his five kids (including one adopted African-American son), and the people of Camden. (He even goes so far as to buy Rosenfeld his first “science oven,” aka a microwave.)
As Rosenfeld’s conscience begins to prick him, and Prosser’s hers (Richie has come to believe he really loves “Lady Edith” and that she loves him), the whole sorry labyrinth begins to fold in on itself.
Director David O. Russell, who last year brought us the also awesomely acted but ridiculous Silver Linings Playbook, manages to conjure up a 70s-genre-revisionist feel, young Scorsese meets mature Sidney Lumet. Christian Bale proves once again that he may be De Niro’s true successor, having put on a nice-sized gut to play the combover king of cons, able to threaten, cower, and be flummoxed in almost any register. Amy Adams as the split personality with a mind all her own is a wonder to behold as the one player who never truly is played. Jennifer Lawrence does a fine long-suffering housewife without ever burying the scared little girl who’s afraid to move too far from home. I would never have thought Renner for Polito, but he manages to bring a tinge of integrity to a character it would be easy to spoof. De Niro is the surprise event in a small uncredited role that reminds you of what he once was capable of. It’s almost as if he’s passing the mantle to Bale and Cooper, who is a marvel as the mama’s boy who never does hear the rest of poor Thorsen’s story, although we know exactly how it ends.
All these characters are guilty as sin, rationalizing the hell out of their bad choices, but the genius of the script and the gift of the actors to their audience is that we feel guilty about judging them. “Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, but you had to survive?” says Rosenfeld in a moment of self-pity.
American Hustle would like us to believe, however, that Carmine Polito is more sinned against than sinning. We’re told he is, in fact, a person who loves his primarily minority constituency, and if he hadn’t been literally chased down and pulled into this ABSCAM caper, he would never have spent a minute in jail.
But here’s where the film cons itself. The real victims of this circus are not Polito & Co. but the people of New Jersey. Grant the fact that the screen-version Polito loves his African-American and Puerto Rican constituents and that he only wants to get his people back to work. The problem is that he believed that casino gambling was the answer. There has never been a bigger bullshit con than casino gambling as the answer to a state’s economic woes. Who did Polito get into bed with the minute he legalized gambling, whether or not it was his intention? Meyer Lansky and his mafia cronies, including the aforementioned Victor Tellegio. He was a crooked man who’d convinced himself he was playing it straight.
The film’s other problem is that the outsized characters overwhelm the Sting-like plot, and the semi-happy ending we’re left with feels like we’re the ones who’ve been taken for a ride.
But with this marvelous cast firing on all cylinders, what a ride it is.