(2013) At a party in New York City in 1974, two people having limited options, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a flabby owner of a chain of dry-cleaning shops with a comb-over, and a former strip-club dancer from Albuquerque with a plunging décolleté, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), make acquaintance, discovering a common affection for the music of Duke Ellington (recently deceased). Preferring to be on the taking side rather than (like his dad) on the taken side, Irving, a small-time con artist who does "it from the feet up," recognizes in Sydney the smart, fearless, passionate style of someone with nothing to lose.
They form a partnership, becoming London Associates, with Sydney posing as Lady Edith Greensley, a Brit with London banking connections, easily taking money (the more you say "no," the more they want in) from desperate people (being very selective, careful, and precise) in need of large loans. Everyone cons everyone else, Irving rationalizes, including conning ourselves, just to survive.
Irving's also married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whose boy Danny from a previous relationship he's adopted as his own son; the couple fight (she refuses to grant him a divorce) and fornicate ("I was her mark").
When Edith accepts a cashier's check for $5,000 from Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), posing as a client, the con artists are arrested by the FBI; the ambitious agent, after his attempt to turn her ("I want to help you…. I like you") fails, offers Irving and Edith a deal of freedom from all charges if they'll assist him, using their manipulative skills, in making a bust on four people involved in white-collar crime.
Indicating a canvas hanging in the Met he says is actually a fake, Irving asks who's the real master here, the artist or the painter who produced the fake. "People believe what they want to believe" is the theme of the this highly entertaining, extremely diverting drama ("Some of this actually happened" based on the Abscam scandal) from a screenplay by co-writers Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell with original score by Danny Elfman accompanying a turntable stacked with popular tunes circa 1980.
On April 4th, 1978, inside the Plaza Hotel with closed-circuit cameras and hidden mics recording the event by the FBI, Irving, Edith, and Richie (in the role of Robert Spencer, adviser to Sheikh Abdullah from Abu Dhabi) meet with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the huge-hearted mayor of Camden, NJ, and businessman Carl Elway, to discuss an investment of $2 million by the Arab sheikh for the purpose of rebuilding Atlantic City - grow the tax base and create jobs.
In nudging a briefcase (filled with $75,000 in cash) toward Polito, Richie freaks the mayor in to fleeing from the room, leaving Irving to pursue Polito outside where he convinces the mayor to deal with him directly. While Richie tries to get his cautious, frugal boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.) - who begins to relate an ice-fishing story to Richie, who peremptorily assumes it's about his being "too eager" - to deposit taxpayer money temporarily in the sheikh's account for credibility, Sydney works another angle, using her connections with Brenda, an otherwise unappreciated woman in charge of wire transfers.
As Edith gets to know Richie (who lives with his mother and has a fiancée) better - warning Irving, not sure if he's in love with her or conning her, "Maybe I like him a lot," since he won't let go of Rosalyn and Danny: "You're nothing to me till you're everything" - she promises him (all of her favors and charms once the deal is finished) in a stall in a ladies' restroom (as the women waiting urge them to get it on): "No more fiction."
On a private jet arranged for Sheikh Abdullah's entrance and meeting with Mayor Polito, this second incarnation of an Arab investor, Paco Hernandez (unlike Irv's original Arab plant), complains that the name Abscam is racist, to which Richie replies: "What do you care, you're Mexican." During a tour of the casino, Polito explains to his guests that some of the people they will have to deal with are underworld characters, immediately putting off Irving, but Rosalyn promptly nuzzles up to the mobsters from Miami, getting to know Pete Musane (Jack Huston).
Another glitch in the transaction necessitates the sheikh's becoming an American citizen, which can be arranged (expedited with political influence), says gangster Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), who then astonishes everyone by addressing Abdullah in Arabic. As the deal grows larger, involving half a dozen New Jersey congressmen and a US senator about to accept bribes, Richie demands the Sherman suite at the Plaza Hotel from Thorsen, leading to a nasty altercation between the two men, into which the chief US prosecutor of the Special Task Force, Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola), must intervene to arbitrate with a bruised ego's skull and the differences of opinion.
Worried about the game's having gotten out of their hands, Sydney says to Irving: "We gotta get over all these guys."
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