What we have here are two small-time dreamers trying to reinvent themselves. Because everybody hustles. She’s Sydney Prosser (Adams) from New Mexico; he’s Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) from the Bronx; they meet at a pool party, bond over a love of Duke Ellington, and suddenly she’s slipping into and out of British accents, has remade herself into Lady Edith Greensly “with connections to London bankers.” His “loan” business has tripled; the con is on. But they’re keeping it small enough to stay in control. Until they dupe Richie DiMaso (Cooper) of the FBI and he offers them a choice: jail – or help the FBI capture white-collar criminals. It’s an offer they can’t refuse; but now they’re out of their comfort zone, out of control, dealing with people who are out of their league. The plot is based on the ABSCAM sting of 1978.
The end credits say it’s a work of fiction. None of that matters; this is a very entertaining story driven by widespread duplicity and witty dialog; sets, costumes, situations and the soundtrack fully evoke the 1970’s. And the acting will con you into believing these people are real. Look for Adams and Bale at Oscar time. Director David O. Russell makes craziness endearing, he makes small-time crooks engaging, he makes survival entertaining. The plot moves back and forth, filling in a bit of backstory, slipping seamlessly forward. At the end, Irving and Sydney may go to jail — or not; the FBI may have their big “sting” — or not; a lot of money may be missing – or not. It depends on who’s hustling whom. Or not.