After the sappy and slick Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle feels like a breath of fresh air from David O. Russell, the easy laughs first coming with its opening title-card note that “Some of this stuff actually happened.” Written by Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle is inspired by the early-80’s ABSCAM investigation, where the FBI went looking for corrupt politicians with a fake Arabic sheikh investor and, not surprisingly, found them, resulting in convictions and consequences from the halls of the capitol in Washington D.C. and the streets of the city in New Jersey and New York. American Hustle is vigorously fictional, mostly for dramatic effect, but by expanding and changing and inventing the lives and loves of the participants in ABSCA; in doing so, becoming a hybrid as unstable as it is unique. The film unfolds in a world with the same personal-slash-political ethical compromises-slash-questions of a ’70s Sidney Lumet or Martin Scorsese film. But it fills that distinctive arena with the insecure egomaniacs, paranoiac philanderers and nervy neurotics you’d expect to find in a film by Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky or John Cassavetes, with the feedback between the two reaching a fever pitch as the undercover operation moves forward and more than a little out of control …
The film begins as Christian Bale’s con man Irving Rosenfeld engages in the elaborate ritual of turning what’s left of his hair into the comb-over that he presents to the public. It’s an uninterrupted shot, and from the jump, Russell’s telling us that this is a world where appearances matter — and maybe a world where appearance matter too much. Irving has a partner, Sydney (Amy Adams), whose fake-British mannerisms and accent help him in his illegal activities like art theft, financial fraud and connecting high-interest loans with high-risk applicants for a $5,000 fee. Paraphrasing Bonnie and Clyde, they’re young(-ish), in love, and they rob people. Professionally, their problems begin when ambitious FBI man Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) pinches them and demands they roll over on other, bigger fish to avoid prison; personally, their problems begin with the fact Irving is still married to bottle-blonde bull-in-a-china-shop Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and hardly end with the second fact that Irving seems to have snared old friend, Mayor of Camden and New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), setting him up for a fall at Richie’s command …
The cast here is as exemplary as it is large — and that’s not even mentioning turns like Louie C.K. and Alsessandro Nivola as perfect upper-echelon FBI men, Michael Pena perfect in a mis-scripted part and great supporting work like Shea Wigham as a flowing-haired fixer and Elizabeth Rohm as Mrs. Polito. The leads are fine — Adams and Lawrence each crackle with energy despite Lawrence being woefully miscast as a mother in her second marriage; she flat-out comes across as too young for part. Bale’s canny con man is shamelessly enjoyable, and Cooper brings the same lock-jawed intensity he did to his role in Limitless — playing another stooge drunk on power. But for all the talk about the leading four big names, it’s actually Renner who steals the show and his scenes — his Carmine is neither a villain nor naive, doing righteous things in the wrong way; out of all the actors, it’s Renner who shows the most real emotion with his eyes, with his expressions, whether in victory or defeat.
Russell’s direction glides and slides, or bumps and thumps — especially as events go more and more out of control. And American Hustle is funny — I challenge anyone who sees it to not laugh at the phrase “science oven” — in a way that intensifies and enhances the who’s-scamming-who endgame. (Russell is great at screwball, spazzy comedy — see Flirting with Disaster — but he’s better when he sets that sparkle against a dark background — see Three Kings — that gives it the contrast he needs to shine. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Promised Land) delivers perfectly-tuned scenes, but the three editors — Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers — also deserve kudos for getting the pop-whiz-bang of the era; production designer Judy Becker and all other parties make the film’s look and feel bloom and burst with the delicacy and strength of a pulse-point throbbing under luminous skin.
Lust and trust and the real versus the fake are all in play here; in many ways, Russell’s film is a better Gatsby riff than Baz Luhrmann’s loud wax museum from earlier this year, with Adams drawn to Bale in spite of herself, amazed at the wonderful shirts — uh, dry-cleaning remainders — he offers her. Adams herself sums it up in voice-over about her misspent life: “I was broke, I was fearless and my dream was to be anyone other than who I was …”
You can feel both American Hustle‘s direction and script go off on a brisk acute angle in the second half, getting the movie closer to an imitation Scorsese film — Faux-scese? — before the arrival of the Mafia as a dramatically convenient (and historically inaccurate) plot-juicer and the final con of cons. It’s not just the fashions that make American Hustle a blast from the past; it’s also worth noting that in today’s political world, any and all of the bribes that sent politicians to jail in this case could today be easily accomplished through anonymous, legal, Supreme-Court-protected means — with zero risk of exposure, arrest or outcry. Now and then, the script and direction are good enough that you feel you’re walking the Reagan-era streets with the characters; now and then, as the script lags or adds elements not for dramatic purposes but solely for drama, the wide ties and shallow necklines held by double-sided-tape drown the cast until they look like they’re playing dress-up in some actual grown-up’s clothes.
American Hustle is fun, and superbly well-made, but in the end, that’s all it is: A ‘true’ story given so much cosmetic surgery you can barely see the bones of the real events under the cinematic flab and fat designed to get audiences easy footpads and handholds to get on-board from grafted-on mobsters to a too-perfect soundtrack of ’70s hits. Russell’s a strong, strange filmmaker, and one day we’ll get a truly great film from him on the order of — or better than — his best film so far, Three Kings, but even while you have to admire American Hustle for its willingness to work hard and play harder, it’s also hard to not notice that all of its frantic efforts don’t really go anywhere new.