The words “Some of this actually happened” appear on screen, and then we’re off, in a whoosh of nylon shirts, yellowy light and disco music. David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is the sort-of-based-on-fact story of the 1970s Abscam scandal. In this version, a con man named Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), who with his alluring associate Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), gets snapped up by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to work for the Feds in a sting operation targeting politicians.
The plot zips by like a Bee Gees song played at 45 rpm, and it doesn’t really matter; the fun of “American Hustle” is its characters and their hair. (This is a film that begins with a longish sequence of Rosenfeld carefully pasting down his toupee, to not-impressive effect.) And the joy of “American Hustle” is Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Rosenfeld’s wife, Rosalyn, with a wonderfully demented shrillness; she’s a simmering polyester caldron that could boil over any minute.
Rosalyn, sitting in Long Island while her husband prowls Manhattan, knows that her marriage is in trouble (Sydney is not only Rosenfeld’s partner in crime, but his mistress), but she’s not quite sure what to do about it. So, instead of talking to him, she belts out “Live and Let Die” while doing the housework, misuses the microwave (which she calls, disparagingly, “the science oven”), piles up her hair like she wants to climb it to heaven, and generally behaves like the sort of glowing lunatic that you can’t take your eyes off. Just try.
And, when Lawrence is not on screen, the other actors have a pretty swell time, too. Adams, decked out in revealing ’70s blouses and elaborately flowing tresses (you see a lot of characters in curlers in this movie, including Cooper), kicks her good-girl persona out of the park. Bale’s Irving, a would-be romantic torn between these two powerhouses, gets a lot of frustrated speeches (“I thought you were mysterious, like my mother, but it turned out mysterious just meant depressed!”) that he delivers with comic glee. And Cooper, if you can tear your attention away from his head of perfectly arranged curls, has some wonderful scenes with Adams — particularly a “Saturday Night Fever”-ish sequence, with the two of them dancing like strobe-lit angels.
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Though a bit overlong, it’s all good fun (and I haven’t even mentioned Jeremy Renner’s Italian-by-way-of-New-Jersey politician, who’s got a pompadour so big you could pitch a tent on it). Russell, following last year’s sweet “The Silver Linings Playbook” with a very different tale of reinvention, has made a glittery disco ball of a movie, with Lawrence as its unexpectedly shining star.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org