"Some of this actually happened," reads the opening credit of David O. Russell's "American Hustle," although it could equally apply to any of the filmmaker's previous works. Russell's freewheeling approach to portraying downtrodden Americans fighting to achieve small personal victories pervades his movies so comprehensively that they may as well exist in his own invented universe. Yet they also maintain a heightened realism through Russell's caustic, loose screenplays, which rely on high energy performances that allows the humanity of his characters to hover over the material and transcend its fixed ingredients. They aren't just the stars of the show -- they steal it, which makes this tale of con artists in the late seventies into ideal turf for Russell to run wild.
Needless to say, story comes second to Russell over the rhythms of well-timed bickering, which is a blessing and a curse in "American Hustle": A confident, polished work, it's also a tangled caper about criminals and the FBI enmeshed in a convoluted scheme that's beside the point -- and yet, with its 137 minute running time, there's so much of plotting that sometimes the movie seems as though it's engaged in the same identity crisis assailing its leads. But the Frankenstein narrative holds a unique allure.
Before anyone in "American Hustle" starts talking, Russell gives us a single cogent image: Conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) glaring at himself in a hotel mirror, packing a significant paunch, his hair jutting upward from a bald scalp as he prepares to apply an unruly combover. The actor's barely recognizable, and becomes increasingly buried in the performance as he awkwardly wrestles with his hairpiece, establishing the slapstick tone and the story's main theme with a single comic bit.
Set in New Jersey in 1978, "American Hustle" is all about people wearing costumes, literally and otherwise, to hide their agendas. Building on a screenplay originally written by Eric Singer, Russell uses as a foundation the famous FBI Congressional corruption probe Abscam, in which federal agents worked with con artist Mel Weinberg to ensnare politicians accepting bribes. The plan was too ambitious for its own good, partly because it stemmed from the daring objective of a reckless federal agent mainly intent on landing his own victories. In "American Hustle," that role falls to a wide-eyed Bradley Cooper as agent Richie DiMaso, who forces Rosenfeld and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to help the FBI with his ambush plans after he busts the couple for running a phony investment firm.
But "American Hustle" starts after these pieces have already been put in motion: The couple have begrudgingly started working for DiMaso to capture the local mayor (Jeremy Renner) accepting a bribe. When it flashes back to explain how they got there, Russell hesitates, focusing instead on the courtship between Rosenfeld and Prosser, a passionate young woman with a vague origin story drawn to Rosenfeld's confidence (if not his body type). It's only once their get-rich-quick plot takes off that DiMaso enters the picture and ensnares them in an even riskier gamble.
By then, it's practically irrelevant. While peppered with multiple voiceovers to display various perspectives on the situation, nobody comments much on the actual plan of offering false bribes to politicians for casino licenses. When Prosser describes Rosenfeld's allure, she says that he's "so careful and precise about every stylistic detail," an observation that could apply to their eventual scams -- but doesn't. "American Hustle" is predominantly concerned with the personalities of its ensemble ahead of their specific actions.