The new David O Russell movie opens with the sentence ‘Some of this actually happened’, a necessary disclaimer, since although it is based on the Abscam scandal, it is only only marginally concerned with retelling that story. This is a scam movie first and foremost; not the best I’ve seen, but not the worst.
The Abscam affair took place in the late 70s and early 80s, when the FBI investigated corruption among politicians, and employed Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist to select the targets to be offered bribes, and to conduct the operations.
In Russell’s film Weinberg has become Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and has also acquired a female partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who goes by the name of Edith Greenleigh when impersonating an upper class Englishwoman for professional purposes. These two fall into the hands of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious and possibly unhinged FBI agent, who decrees that they must cooperate with him to secure their safety. But DiMaso’s schemes become increasingly dangerous, as he casts his net wider until an especially large shark (played by an especially well know actor) swims into his net, and everyone is in danger. Matters are complicated both by Richie falling for Sydney, and by the unhinged behaviour of Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
In other words, it’s all about infidelity, mistrust, illusion, fantasy and lying. The only halfway decent character in the film is Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a guy who is trying to do the right thing but in the wrong way, and who becomes a victim of this elaborate sting. Oh yes, and it’s also about hair. All the main characters have a lot of hair and spend a lot of time messing with it – whether it’s DiMaso’s ringlets or Rosenfeld’s combover. This may be intended as a metaphor for duplicity, or it may just be a way of getting a few laughs.
By comparison with Russell’s recent films – Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter – this is a less satisfying effort. It’s well made, has a great cast and a good story (which was once intended to be the basis of a Dan Aykroyd/John Belushi movie, till Belushi died), but it lacks anyone we can actually care about. The relationships are all built on self-interest and deception, or vanity and lust. It’s fun rather than funny, and by the end, although caught unawares by the scam perpetrated on the audience, I couldn’t say I really cared one way or the other.
Russell is a talented director, with another film already in the bag, and his films are mostly a welcome breath of fresh air and energy. This is good, just not as good as what he is capable of.
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