“Some of this actually happened,” swears American Hustle, right at the onset, in the place where most movies “based on a true story”—no matter how loosely—are advertising as much. This five-word disclaimer, maybe the most honest moment in a film about constant dishonesty, does more than just prepare the audience for dramatic liberties. It also announces that Hustle, the wildly entertaining new comedy from David O. Russell, will adhere less to facts than to the laws of chaos that govern all the director’s screwball concoctions. The subject is Abscam, a famous late-’70s, early-’80s FBI sting operation, in which the feds created a phony foreign sheik to ensnare a bunch of crooked congressmen. Yet the movie is no more about politics than The Fighter was about boxing or Three Kings was about Desert Storm. For Russell, who used to make high-volume indie comedies and now makes high-volume Hollywood ones, every story is just a fresh opportunity to send neurotic personalities careening off of each other. And boy, does he have a whole gallery of them this time.
With its multiple voice-over narrations and vintage-jukebox soundtrack, American Hustle initially finds Russell operating, quite blatantly, in knockoff Scorsese mode. The film begins, like Goodfellas, out of sequence, before winding back to the place where two-bit con man Irving (Christian Bale, rocking a beer belly and comb-over) first meets his partner in love and crime, Sydney (a terrific Amy Adams). The two run a small-potatoes scam, bilking desperate clients out of their 5K investment, until an ambitious FBI agent, Richie (Bradley Cooper), brings the hammer down on their whole show. It’s with the arrival of this power-hungry lawman, who coerces Irving and Sydney into devising an elaborate trap for dirty politicians, that Russell’s gift for multi-character comic mayhem begins to rear its head.
American Hustle turns out to be a freewheeling party of a movie, one that never stops adding complications and wrinkles and hungry new players to the mix. Irving, it’s belatedly revealed, has a young, space-cadet wife he neglects; she’s played by a brassy, crowd-pleasing Jennifer Lawrence, who barrels violently into every one of her scenes. (Russell, hooked as always on instability, turns the character, with her loose-lipped indiscretion, into his supreme agent of chaos.) Sydney, who hedges her bets by cozying up to the plainly smitten Richie, pretends to be a British expatriate, and it’s one of the movie’s best gags that no one can hear through her very shaky, come-and-go accent. Hustle piles subplots on top of plots: A less busy, more conventional movie could have been built entirely off the complicated friendship between Irving and Jersey mayor Carmine (Jeremy Renner), whose essential decency—he’s a true altruist, corruption aside—sends the former into a minor guilt spiral. This is one of those comedies in which just about everyone on-screen is funny, from Robert De Niro, spoofing his crime-movie career in an inspired cameo, to Louis C.K., who has a great running gag about an anecdote he’s never allowed to finish.
But who are these desperate con artists, these scrambling swindlers put under the gun? Russell never quite decides; he’s too busy having a ball to go much deeper than deceptive surfaces. (Whether, for example, Sydney really has affection for Richie or is just faking it remains something of a mystery.) Then again, perhaps that’s the point: Per its title, American Hustle is about the bluffs, disguises, and bald-faced scams necessary to make it—honestly or otherwise—in this country. Everyone is playing a part, a fact Russell foregrounds by beginning the movie with an extended scene of Irving pasting on his hairpiece. Yet for all its focus on misdirection and masquerade, Hustle cuts to at least one surprising truth: Bradley Cooper, the once-obnoxious, alpha-male star of The Hangover series, has transformed into a remarkably talented comic performer. As in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, the actor finds his sweet spot by going big, like when Richie can barely contain his glee—his arrogant, incredulous joy—as a mark incriminates himself on tape. For Cooper, and his director, loss of control is liberating.