Being an American is an art form and the path is long and arduous, as we see all too plainly in “American Hustle,” a huge, sloppy American Dream saga set in 1978. Based loosely on the famed “Abscam” scandal that put several congressmen behind bars (“Some of this actually happened,” the movie informs us during the opening credits), “American Hustle” reminds us how the U.S. occupied the position of head honcho in the 20th century: with sheer, ruthless obnoxiousness.
But what a ride. What a nation. And let’s not even talk about the bared hairy chests, bell bottoms and outrageous hairdos just yet (though I’m dying to).
Directed by David O. Russell, “American Hustle” assembles an amazing cast consisting of Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” duo Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, an unrecognizably flabby Christian Bale, and Amy Adams, whose presence here is defined not by her brilliant performance so much as a total, brazen bra-lessness. She spends the entire movie like that, and it’s a wonder how anyone — cast and crew alike — got any work done. She and Lawrence share a single, sizzling scene together in the ladies’ room and that moment sticks out like a jagged diamond.
Basically, what happens is this: Sydney (Adams) meets Irving (Bale) at a Hamptons party and they connect instantly. Irving owns some dry-cleaning stores but he’s a con man on the side, and ropes in his new lover, who’s completely OK with their new partnership (“combining love and commerce”). The snag in their relationship is that Irving is married to suburban-wife-from-hell Rosalyn (Lawrence), and they have a young son.
In the meantime, loudmouth FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) horns in on their operation and offers a deal in lieu of arrest and prison. Irving and Sydney must con four bribe-accepting politicians and deliver them to the FBI — or else. At the top of the list is Camden, New Jersey, Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
Some U.S. pundits have said that New Jersey represents the wrongs of America: its huge suburban sprawl, its utter dependence on oil and cars, its delusional gung-ho attitude. These things are all apparent in “American Hustle.” Polito, a self-made politician “of the people,” is convinced that rebuilding Atlantic City is the cure-all for the woes of the state, and sees no distinctive boundaries between Wall Street and the casino.
The dominant delight is the way Russell presents 1978, when America sported a kind of sweaty glamour, when everything was much more in-your-face, tasteless, rough and just plain sexy. And too much is at stake for the characters to concern themselves with stuff like fidelity, love and decency. Getting ahead and getting rich proffer their own justification, and every one of the characters wallows in it.
Things get dicey when the mob cuts in — Robert De Niro makes a brief and scary appearance as a boss from Florida. But he’s no match for the out-of-control Rosalyn. As Irving describes her, “she’ll always be interesting” because of her utter egotism. She has put herself at the center of the universe and refuses to budge; and though he hates his wife, Irving can’t help being inspired by her. Which is probably how many people feel about America itself. I don’t know about New Jersey.