The story begins, aptly enough, with a longish scene illustrating the process of presenting the ’do. It’s a mix of comb-over and hairpiece piecework, and it makes our dubious anti-hero played by Christian Bale’s coiffure passably hip. Said process is at once elaborate and steeped in the art of winging it, and so it goes with Bale’s character, a con man of some natural skill who improvises as he goes and sometimes gets his man (and woman, in the case of con-woman Amy Adams). So it goes, as well, with the latest David O. (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) Russell film, loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ’70s/early ’80s, which fools us neatly into entertainment submission to its sweet-sour blend of farce and perilous suspense, intrigue and hokum.
As we’re informed at the outset of the film, “Some of this actually happened,” and the rough storyline does a charismatic clumsy disco dance between the low-blow conning games of Bale (fattening up for the role, as he went skeletal for The Machinist), his love interest/ally Adams, and the hyperactive FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper, offering the con man an out from prosecution through collaboration. The relative innocence of the scam — seeking to out-corrupt politicians — has a chilling moment of broaching the no-man’s-land of mobster violence in a backroom scene with a high-ranking gangster (given due deadly chill by Robert De Niro). In the story’s pivotal corner is the con man’s wife (played with scene-stealing power by Jennifer Lawrence, outdoing her shrill Playbook work).
We instinctively know, from the very matters of fashion, hair, and font that the “Me Decade” era is a secondary, atmospheric subject in Russell’s film, and he doesn’t disappoint on the “soaking in the ’70s” front. Coifs and clothes set the stage, from the taut curly mop of Cooper’s tightly wound FBI agent to the cool, come-hithering swagger of Adams’ plunging necklines. The characters swim in a time-warping soundtrack of ELO, Elton John and, in one song-encoded sequence, the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?”
Russell’s latest film takes its place in the ranks of conning the conner cinema lorded over by the great The Grifters and the shimmying con-man portrait Catch Me if You Can, in which wits and kitsch prevail even as the prospect of violence lurks around every corner. It’s one good recipe for the life richly lived and for the willing con game of American cinema itself.