Moviemakers love con artists, because they both make their money the same way: telling stories and making people believe in them.
There's plenty of artistry, con and otherwise, on display in "American Hustle," director David O. Russell's free-wheeling and sharply funny tale of people working hard to fool other people and often fooling themselves.
The semi-factual story takes as its root the Abscam scandal, which ran from 1978 to 1980, in which the FBI set up a sting operation to nab corrupt politicians who believed they were taking bribes from an Arab sheik.
Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer tell their slightly bent account of the scandal from the viewpoint of two con artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Irving starts out as a dry cleaner with a side business selling stolen art, until he meets Sydney, who plays the role of an English noblewoman to lure marks into seeking bogus loans predicated on her phony connections in British banking.
Irving and Sydney become partners in crime and in love except for the fact that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a manic-depressive who wraps him around her little finger.
Running one scam, Irving and Sydney get busted by the feds. That's when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) makes them an offer: Go to prison, or help him run scams on bigger players so he can arrest them. Irving and Sydney, always thinking of survival, agree and start working on the populist mayor of Camden, N.J., Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
Irving and Sydney take turns as narrator, each talking about their dreams of rising above the poverty in which they grew up and their ambition to achieve those dreams at any cost. Meanwhile, Richie's ambitions also get the better of him, as he goes over the head of his boss (Louis C.K.) to a headline-seeking senior FBI official (Alessandro Nivola) who dreams of nailing not only congressmen but possibly a major mob boss. Then there's Rosalyn, a wild card whose presence could destroy the whole enterprise.
Saturated in tacky '70s glamour and an 8-track player's worth of period songs, "American Hustle" mines its humor from the colliding self-delusions of its characters.
Russell, reuniting with his "Silver Linings Playbook" stars Cooper and Lawrence, gets great work from his cast. The women, especially, shine. Adams brings a sexy spunk to Sydney, who favors plunging necklines because she knows they will distract the mark. There's less guile in Lawrence's Rosalyn, but she brings a manic energy to her character's manipulations.
"American Hustle" also manages to throw in a few surprises, both in strategic casting and an ending that any con artist would love. It's a movie that ultimately fools the audience, and that in itself is a rich payoff.
Con artists must work with the feds in this fast and funny tale, dripping in '70s glitz and sharp humor.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 20.
Rating • R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.
Running time • 138 minutes.