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‘American Hustle’ a surprisingly endearing story

“American Hustle” is a comedy about, of all things, Abscam. That’s not going to mean anything to anyone under 40 and probably not much to anyone under 50.

Abscam is a long-ago political scandal – 1978 to be exact. It was a government sting operation that used a fake sheik to bribe a string of prominent politicians. Since the stings were all caught on surveillance tape, it became a media sensation.

But that was so long ago, hardly anyone remembers much about it. And that’s just perfect for the filmmakers behind “American Hustle,” who announce at the very beginning of this film: “Some of this actually happened.” This movie starts with a pretty outrageous real event and spins an even more outrageous tale out of it.

At its heart is a con man played by Christian Bale. He’s a fat, balding, slouch of a man with the world’s worst possible toupee who makes his way through life convincing the suckers of the world that he’s telling the truth when he’s really selling them a bill of goods. He sums up his philosophy of the “con” while in a museum with an FBI agent:

“I want to show you something. This Rembrandt here. People come from all over the world to see this,” says Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale.

“Yeah, he’s good yeah,” says character Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper.

“It’s a fake,” says Rosenfeld.

“What are you talking about? That’s impossible.”

“People believe what they want to believe because the guy who made this was so good that it’s real to everybody. Now who is the master, the painter or the forger?”

Director David O. Russell clearly prefers “the forger” and his ilk. “American Hustle” takes real delight in the collection of cockamamie seventies-era characters who operate in the shadows of polite society – the con artists and swindlers who through sheer drive and imagination create illusions that fool the world.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and laughably over-the-top. Amy Adams plays Bale’s conniving lover who fakes a British accent to cover for her bland Midwest roots and Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s neglected Long Island wife who pouts a lot and whines a lot and fights a lot with Amy Adams. Bradley Cooper is an FBI agent who incessantly curls his hair and inappropriately “crushes” on Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner plays a corrupt mayor with a pompadour the size of a small dog. How all these crazy characters interact with each other makes for a very smart, original, and funny movie, and a surprisingly endearing one at that.

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