The film opens on a man dressed in a ’70s leisure suit primping in front of a mirror. He wears a heavy gold chain around his neck, and more than a hint of chest hair shows above his open collar. He pulls back what is left of his thinning hair and sprays adhesive on his bald pate. He carefully pats into place a wad of dark wool that looks more like a Brillo pad than hair. Then he sweeps his long thin hair forward from his crown, shapes it over the wool, and sprays it into place. Voilà! He looks like a million bucks. A million bucks with a combover.
Will Ferrell in Anchorman 2, you might guess. And it would make sense. This is the kind of character that he revels in portraying. But no. The actor is Christian Bale — Christian Bale, for heaven’s sake! — and the film is American Hustle. This is not a mindless, zany Will Ferrell-style comedy, but a pseudo-serious film about a sting operation that involves a fake Arab sheikh, underworld mobsters, and congressmen taking bribes. You might even remember it as Abscam. But don’t expect to learn any history in this film. It isn’t Argo. As the opening credits proclaim with refreshing honesty: “A part of this actually happened.” Ha! “A part.” They don’t even try to claim that it is “based on a true story.”
Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-potatoes con man running a small-potatoes Ponzi scheme based on accepting phony finder’s fees for phony loans from phony backers. This is the late 1970s, when inflation and interest rates were both in double digits, and loans were difficult to come by; I remember signing an interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage at 14.25% in late 1979 and being relieved to qualify for it. When Bale is stung by an FBI operation, he is forced to help the Bureau create a larger sting operation to catch some dirty politicians and a big underworld mobster.
Everyone is conning someone in this film: not just the con men, but the FBI, the politicians, the husbands, and the wives. As one example, Irving is totally smitten by the vivacious, beautiful, and unpredictable Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), but he is equally smitten by his sexy, kittenish wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who has an affair with the mobster’s chauffeur out of revenge for Irving’s infidelity. Meanwhile, Sydney falls for the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), who also falls for her, even though he is “sort of” engaged to be married. All of this is sleazy, but in the best sense of the word. The characters are deliciously amoral and completely unaware.
The film is a sexy, smart, kooky romp with some of the finest actors in Hollywood simply reveling in their over-the-top characters. The dialog is quick and witty, and the sting itself has satisfying twists with unexpected outcomes. Remember: only part of this actually happened. And because of that, none of it has to be true.