"Some of this actually happened," begins David O. Russell's journey into the rhythms of ambition, con artistry and flawed human weirdness, and that's as good a pre-apology as any for the liberties the director and co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer take with an all-but-forgotten, late-'70s political corruption scandal known as "Abscam." A post-Watergate sting operation designed to ferret out politicians on the take, Abscam lived at exactly the right moment, in the wake of a presidency ending in disgrace, so it seemed like the proper time to shine a light in all the dirty corners of public life. To that end, the FBI set about entrapping a bunch of elected officials into taking bribes. Why not?
According to Russell's version of events, this operation involved love rivalries, extravagant male-pattern-baldness-obscuring comb-over techniques, self-help magazine articles, art forgeries, lots of screaming and rapid-fire banter, sexy suburban pool parties in the dead of winter and exhilarating dance sequences in sparkling discos to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." If that's not how it really happened then somebody forgot to make it awesome and cinematic the first time around.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, playing fat and bald and seemingly loving it as much as Charlize Theron did when she gained 30 pounds and put on those fake bad teeth in Monster) owns a string of dry cleaners and moonlights as a small time con man. When he meets boldly opportunistic stripper Sydney (Amy Adams, ditching cuteness for carnality and winning at it), they click immediately and she quickly assumes the identity and posh British accent of "Lady Edith Greensly," infusing his operation with sex appeal and a hard shell of fake classiness. They're partners in crime and love, in spite of Irving's marriage to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, hilariously petulant) and business booms as they milk $5,000 a pop from bad-risk loan aspirants who walk away without a dime. When they accidentally try to fleece an undercover FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) they're put to work as Abscam bait, among whose marks are good-hearted mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
But all the crime and punishment and betrayal and infidelity and polyester is just a big flashy framework for Russell's real concerns, the ones he's been digging into in films like The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees and The Silver Linings Playbook. He loves the strangeness in people, the striving and delusion and joy-making willingness to be taken in by something bigger and cooler than what we already know.
Aiming for bigness (put "American" in your title and you're showing your hand), Russell achieves it with specifics, namely pushing his actors into complicated corners and cranking out dazzling, movie-talk dialogue that rules this cracked kingdom of bad decisions. It's sharp, funny and pointed, allowing every character a chance to reveal what's under the hair and assumed identities they've piled on for show. His people dance around each other with words and his direction asserts a love of the flaws, contradictions and obfuscation in human interaction. Perfect moment: when Irving describes the bouncing-off-the-walls-of-suburban-motherhood Rosalyn as "the Picasso of passive aggressive karate," it doesn't just make a bizarro sort of sense, it brings his story to wild, intoxicating life. Your gut might silently scream at you to avoid them at all costs, but any one of these strange creatures would probably entrap you at a sexy '70s pool party, too.