The movie ostensibly tells the story of the “Abscam” scandal, in which FBI agents in the late 1970s/early ‘80s used a fake Arab sheikh to bring down corrupt politicians. The mood of American Hustle is delightfully playful, opening on a shot of Christian Bale’s uncharacteristically large gut (he gained 50lbs for the role) and then spending time examining his character’s terrible toupee.
Bale’s character is Irving Rosenfeld, the fictional persona of the con man Melvin Weinberg, who helped mastermind the FBI sting. Irving learned how to “hustle” at a young age by throwing rocks through local storefronts to drum up business for his father’s glass company – and he’s convinced that everyone in the world also hustles to survive. He sports confidence and style in his backdoor endeavors involving forged art and a fake loan business and falls in love almost at first sight with the British Lady Edith Greensly (Amy Adams), whom he soon brings in to help with his deals. Adams delivers a knockout performance of a survival-oriented hustler that feels to be withholding something from everyone around her—including the audience. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Irv’s wife Rosalyn, is an overly emotional, socially inappropriate overkill. Jeremy Renner plays merry and corrupt Mayor Carmine Polito with believable sincerity and heart.
The film heavily focuses on personal reinvention, or the hope that if you can turn yourself into somebody else then you will achieve your dreams. While I think the final 20 minutes need some personal reinvention to keep up with the pace of the rest of the film, you won’t want your money back – the stellar performances alone are worth the hustle.