Director David O. Russell’s vision of America has always been Winesburg, Ohio, hopped up on trucker speed: a place of frantic grotesques distorted by their own need. In his new film, American Hustle
—loosely based on the Abscam federal bribery scandal of the 1970s—everyone from New Jersey's mayor to federal agents to small-time con artists are so warped by ambition that integrity and even identity become expensive luxury items. The film is a balls-to-the-wall, unbridled love affair with homegrown bullshit and piss-taking. American Bullshit
was, in fact, the working title of the film, and in bullshit, it would seem Russell has finally found his true subject matter. From the sincerely insincere, American Hustle
builds genuine characters. The film’s establishing shot is brilliant in this regard: a humorously long sequence of Christian Bale’s potbellied con man, Irving Rosenfeld, gluing a toupee to his head. When meticulously permed federal agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) makes a move on Rosenfeld’s girl almost immediately thereafter, it’s an insult. When he musses his rug, it’s an unforgivable violation. It’s a wild pretzel of a plot: Rosenfeld and mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) have been caught by DiMaso in an undercover sting and are forced to run confidence rackets for the feds in order to nab other grifters. Halfway through the film, it’s unclear who’s conning whom, but it’s clear everybody’s conning themselves. This is the high wire that makes American Hustle
so exhilarating, with the quick turns of a David Mamet or Howard Hawks fast-talkie. Despite its ’70s high-criminal subject matter, it is far closer to His Girl Friday
than to Goodfellas
. Really, it’s the sort of flick we’ve rarely seen since the ’40s: a farce with a heart.