‘Hustle’ about a complicated con game it can’t explain

By Gary Clift

The 1980 “Abscam” sting led to the arrest of eight and the conviction of seven members of Congress for bribe-taking. The FBI had a couple of phony Arab sheiks offer money to the members of the House of Representatives in return for favors.

Folks may think Washington is currently unpopular, but they must have no recollection of this scandal, the oil embargo, and rocketing inflation.

Director David O. Russell’s follow-up to “Silver Linings Playbook” is a film that is sort of about Abscam. At the beginning of “American Hustle,” a subtitle announces: “Some of this actually happened.” That seems about fair. Actually the bribery scenes look a lot like the FBI’s film of their 1982 attempt to catch John Delorean, the car-maker, in a cocaine-marketing scheme.

But “American Hustle” is only sort of about Abscam, and then only because the events can be used as an excuse to put ambitious FBI agent Dimaso (Bradley Cooper) in the way of New Jersey mayor Polito (Jeremy Renner), con artists Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams), and Irving’s stupid wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

You see, the point of the movie is to give the actors chances to shine, not to tell the story. The plot wants to be something of Mamet’s, like “The Spanish Prisoner.” But screenwriters Eric Singer and Russell are, believe me, not David Mamet. Get to thinking too much about the cons in the last reel and you’ll soon decide the script needed serious rewriting.

So the question is, can the movie be satisfactory given that it is strong on acting and weak on story. Surprisingly, this was the same question we were discussing a couple of weeks ago concerning the Sylvester Stallone-written film “Homefront,” in which James Franco, Kate Bosworth, and Winona Ryder gave terrific performances.

I don’t know the answer to the question. Renner, who was famous for a bit after “The Hurt Locker” came out, gives a wonderful performance in “American Hustle.” Adams, whose character won’t be seen out of the strip club without a blouse opened to her navel, dominates the first hour of the new film, and given that she’s on-screen with Bale most of the time, that’s a heck of a claim.

Still, the movie seemed long to me. I found myself looking at my Seiko as I watched Sydney fall for financial scam artist Irving. He knew there was something wrong with Dimaso as a client even before the law man arrested Syd, took her off to jail, and offered to free her if the con partners would help him trap politicians using a fake sheik and the promise of big money.

Russell’s tone here is uneven. The movie is being described as a comedy, but really the only consistent laugh-getting here is done by the hairstyles—Bale’s comb-over, Cooper’s perm, and especially Renner’s pompadour are genuinely over-the-top.

Actually the movie has some tension late, when the mob becomes involved. The mayor wants the sheik’s money for Atlantic City rejuvenation, and organized crime (represented by Robert DeNiro) is actively involved in anything having to do with gambling. But why the kingpin thinks, at the end of the movie, that Irving has done him a favor, I had no idea.

Rosalyn’s romantic attachment to one of the crime family may make audience members uneasy. It certainly helps the script to explain how the mob recognizes that the Feds are involved in the deal with the sheik. But why is it important that they recognize that?

In this case, questions about the plot are probably beside the point. We should be admiring Bale’s dedicated weight gain, Cooper’s comic taunting of his boss (played by comedian Louis C.K.), Renner’s ability to give his thirties friend-of-the-neighborhood politician character a bit of gravity, and so on. Its the characters, stupid. Forget the story.

Well, I know I should. And I tried. But I can’t. For me “American Hustle” is a movie about a complicated con game it can’t explain. And the characters? Most of them seemed too sharp to have fallen for what the movie’s FBI office accepts without question.

The feds are as bamboozled in this movie as the congressmen were in the real Abscam sting.

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