You know that disclaimer at the end of the movie which says that the preceding was a work of fiction and that “ “The events depicted in this movie are fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.” Well here is a film where you should take that to heart. The movie is a brilliant re-creation of the time and place of the ABSCAM story, but it is mixed with generous amounts of fictionalized romantic entanglements, sympathetic characterizations of the perps and a sense of humor that I know is not FBI approved.
This is basically an update of “The Sting”, with Christian Bale and Amy Adams cast in the roles originated by Redford and Newman. Bradley Cooper is slotted into the Robert Shaw part, and the con artists are complicated good guys who may or may not be getting the drop on an FBI that is out of control. The clever way in which the film distracts us from the illusion right in front of us includes a showoff piece of supporting work from Jennifer Lawrence and a starring role for Amy Adams breasts, which certainly deserve an award for how well they are displayed here without giving away the whole trick. The craft in the story telling is very evident by the way that things ultimately make sense despite the fact that the film makers start their movie in the middle and have to work backwards. By the time the denouncement arrives, you will have been entertained and fooled for a couple of hours and you will barely notice the way the film tries to re-frame events so that the bad guy are turned into misunderstood good guys.
It would be unfair to say too much about the plot, except that it does roughly follow the investigation into corruption by the FBI, using a phony sheik and a con man who helped plan the operation. Bale is the dumpy looking but charismatic con artist who pulls in an ambitious woman from nowhere and begins the process of fleecing a variety of marks. When Cooper shows up as a potential mark, Bale’s radar starts sending out warning signals and the rest of the story begins in earnest. Everyone in the story has delusions that motivate them, Cooper sees a career and a life elevated, Adams sees herself as a completely invented new woman, Lawrence imagines a stable love life when she is incapable of real love and Bale sees “real” as something that is ultimately achievable for him after long playing at being someone. All of this takes place in the late 1970s, an era noted for it’s lack of reality. Self help gurus cater to willing customers who are self deluded. The clothes and the music and the dance steps of the times were all designed to be costumes that anyone could wear and make themselves into something they were not. The whole operation was largely defined by the use of a fake middle eastern sheik who fit right in to the glamorous perspective that the characters have of themselves.
The best example of the perspective taking that the characters (and the makers of this film ) engage in is the characterization of the Mayor of Camden, N.J.. Jeremy Renner plays the guy like a sane version of the Joe Pesci character from “Goodfellas”. He is lovable, sincere, unpredictable but not a killer and he is actually motivated only by his interest in serving the people of his town. He becomes the emotional center of the movie. The “real” romance in the story is the relationship between Bale and Renner, not Lawrence or Adams at all. We hate the idea that he becomes collateral damage in the investigation. All the steam and fireworks between Adams, Cooper, Bale and Lawrence is a sideshow to the true victimization of Renner’s character. The most dramatic moment in the film centers on the sudden shift in the friendship between these two men. Like another film with an ABSCAM reference, “Donnie Brasco”, we see the betrayal of one man by another who considered him a friend as the most unethical act in the story.
The music in the film highlights the moods of the era. Sometimes the events of the day are dark, calling for an even more somber version of “White Rabbit” than the Jefferson Airplane could come up with. Romantic failings are perfectly encapsulated by “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”. Exuberance and optimism are displayed in a karaoke version of “Delilah ” or Jack Jones singing live in a nightclub. Duke Ellington represents the sophistication that the two leads both identify with but seem least likely to be identified by. Sexual lust is explored with a repetitive disco tune complete with moaning lyrics and everywhere in the film, the music of Jeff Lynne and ELO are used to both recall and mock the excesses of the 1970s. “Boogie Nights”, “Savages”, “Donnie Brasco” all use Lynne tunes to evoke a feeling from the past. Even more than the disco tunes of the day, Lynne’s music recalls those turbulent days of the late seventies, and so it is ubiquitous in this film.
The rapid cross cutting climax of the film is an echo of “Goodfellas” again and the payoff will satisfy just as the results did back in 1973 for Paul and Robert. The movie is adventurous and complex and titillating without being grotesque. Everyone does stellar work in their performances and director David O. Russel along with his co-writer Eric Singer, have crafted an entertaining fiction out of a weird historical incident. Just don’t be conned by the words of Irving Rosenfeld about the little guys who got caught. The Senator who was approached and reported the contact to the FBI would be a real role model. The guys who got stung, well maybe not the worst people in the world, did in fact betray our trust in them as public servants. Let’s not get carried away by a great film and reinvent history.