Based on a true story, "American Hustle" opens in a semi-documentary manner, with a line of on-screen prose providing the location -- the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan -- and the date -- November, 1978. Some intermittent voice-over narration from the two major characters throughout the movie continues the documentary tone. After that, however, both action and people grow increasingly, even outrageously extreme, in part through the sheer zaniness of subject and theme.
In that opening scene, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) painstakingly arranges an elaborate hairdo, involving a comb-over and a toupee, a comical moment that suggests the vanity of the man and the deception of his deeds. Irving informs the audience that he owns a string of dry-cleaning shops, runs a sideline in fake paintings, and augments that with some not entirely clear business in bilking people through false investments. He also introduces his accomplice and lover, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who shares Irving's ambitions and larcenous instincts; their alternating narration moves the plot through flashbacks, showing the events that led up to their arrest by the FBI, in the person of agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
In exchange for leniency, DiMaso pressures the couple to participate in a scheme to nail a batch of politicians for corruption, which brings the movie's plot up to the moment of Irving's coiffure. They embark on an operation aimed at the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who wants to bring gambling casinos to Atlantic City in order to boost employment and reinvigorate the state's economy. To entrap some members of Congress, they also use an agent impersonating an Arab sheik, who promises to bankroll the plan to the tune of $2 million, introducing yet another level of trickery.
All of this maneuvering initiates a number of conflicting, often comical plots -- DiMaso constantly cajoles his boss into paying for luxury accommodations, fancy cars, a jet plane, and providing the $2 million. He also falls in love with Sydney and tries to squeeze Irving out of the operation, thus advancing his own career. At the same time, since the whole plan involves political corruption, gambling casinos, and a lot of money, the mafia naturally joins the game, raising yet another level of deception and danger.
The various double and triple crosses, the pervasive sense that everybody lies and assumes another identity, and the various threats to life and limb paradoxically keep tipping the movie over into comedy. Irving's dizzy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), cannot work in her kitchen without accidentally setting it on fire; the excitable, aggressive Richie, who bullies his boss, actually lives with his mother and creates his own elaborate hairdo. The notion that everybody works a confidence game on everybody else, that con men con each other, leads to some surprising and laughable twists and resolutions to an essentially funny movie about some serious subjects.
Director David O. Russell exploits the era of "American Hustle" carefully and conscientiously, showing the distinctive clothing, the awful disco music and dancing, and yes, the hairstyles of a time that seems long, long ago. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, both beautiful young women in different ways, wear dresses with enough cleavage to challenge the Grand Canyon. Much of Christian Bale's performance in effect grows out of his loud, clashing wardrobe and his oversized eyeglasses, which become a reiterated characterizing prop.
Although just about everyone goes way over the top much of the time, Bale's acting deserves a good deal of praise, especially in its demonstration of his remarkable versatility. After playing the lean, laconic, haunted protagonist of "Out of the Furnace," he impersonates a flamboyant, fast-talking confidence artist from the Bronx with absolute conviction. He clearly gained a lot of weight for this part -- contrasting with his previous role, his Irving Rosenfeld is paunchy and physically unimpressive, faintly ridiculous even in serious moments, yet working his character so thoroughly that he deceives the audience as fully as his fellow hustlers. His character, along with all the others in "American Hustle," the complicated scheming, and its surprising results, suggest the truth of W.C. Fields's dictum, "You can't cheat an honest man." As it turns out, few of those populate this movie.