“Some of this actually happened,” reads the cheeky intro to David O. Russell’s Abscam-inspired “American Hustle,” after which one immediately relaxes: Great. No need to know anything about FBI stings, Jersey politics or crushed velour; we’re playing fast-and-loose with facts, and who remembers ’70s-style corruption anyway, with Rob Ford and Ted Cruz lumbering across the landscape?
The really important things are happening right before our eyes: Jennifer Lawrence becoming the most potent synthesis of comedy and feline sexuality to hit the screen for half a century. Amy Adams coming in a close second. And Russell managing to make a movie steeped in cultural nostalgia that also sneers at the notion that the past is past.
There are men in this movie, too. But all the plot points about politics, mobsters and FBI stings seem like afterthoughts to the women and sex that permeate every frame of the film.
At the center is a highly unlikely Lothario -- Irving Rosenfeld, played by a Christian Bale who gained more weight than he lost for “The Machinist” (a film in which he pre-McConaughey’d McConaughey). The paunchy bewigged and very married Irving is running a highly successful confidence game with his partner/lover, Lady Edith Something-hyphen-Something-Pitt-Crawley, a.k.a Sydney Prosser a.k.a Adams (shades of Stanwyck in “The Lady Eve”), who is the con-woman supreme, but may not be quite as cunning as Lawrence’s Rosalyn Rosenfeld. Anxieties aside, between Roz and Sydney, Irving is a pretty good argument for canceling your Crunch membership.
Things go swimmingly until Irv and Edith get busted by an ambitious Fed named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who instead of prosecuting involves them in an elaborate scheme to entrap local officials, a congressman and, with any luck, the entire Mafia. While the intricacies of the plot are fascinating, other factors steal the show: Russell’s direction -- which suggests Preston Sturges mating with Sidney Lumet -- Linus Sandgren’s period-grainy, gritty, almost nicotine-stained cinematography. And the acting: Cooper’s late-‘70s-era De Niro impersonation (De Niro himself shows up later) is just one of the many, many refs to American cinema -- in bygone, good-riddance-to-it fashion -- that informs a movie in which the corruption seems innocent.
Bale is a wonder, and has never seemed seedier; Adams is tart, has never seemed sexier, and Lawrence will get an Oscar nom for supporting actress. On that you can bet your lava lamp and collection of disco on 8-track. It seems blasphemous to say it, but “12 Years a Slave” suddenly has some competition in the awards sweepstakes.