American Hustle opens, as one might expect from a movie about scammers and con-artists, with a con job; But not a con job that has anything important to do with the plot. The con job in question is a man's toupée. Spending several meticulous minutes brushing on paste, applying the shabby tuft of a hairpiece, and then elaborately combing over his side hair so that every follicle is in precisely the right place, this man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), is attempting to con the world at large into believing that he has no bald spot.
ée: A tangled, messy, unruly concealment of a script littered with bald spots, and yet we can't help but stare in enjoyment at the sight of it. That wig, however insubstantial, is a lot more fun to watch than a head of real hair.
If you're unfamiliar with the ABSCAM operation on which American Hustle is (very) loosely based, don't worry too much about it. The opening title card cheekily declares, “Some of this actually happened”, taking the piss out of the vinegary caper comedy that follows, and also preempting the silly chorus of “historical accuracy” complaints that beleaguer awards-season releases every year.
Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, who must've gone through dozens of rolls of two-sided breast tape to keep from falling out of her canyon-deep V-necks) are partners in love and in crime. They run a phony loan operation and deal counterfeit art on the side, but their fraudulent ways catch up with them when they get busted by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper sporting an hilarious perm).
It would be game over for Irving and Sydney, but DiMaso has bigger fish to fry. In exchange for their immunity, he extorts the duo into helping orchestrate stings to entrap corrupt politicians. The mark: Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner) who needs to bribe congressmen and Senators to back his vision of a rejuvenated gambling industry in Atlantic City.
The con – which involves a fake Arab sheik and millions of decoy dollars to lure in the big bucks – would go off without a hitch if according to Irving's design, but his ditzy, ear-grating wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down when she gets too chummy with the Miami mob. And as if the potential mafia intervention weren't enough for Irving's weak heart, he has to watch his beloved Sydney flirt it up DiMaso, while grappling internally with the fact that Mayor Polito's actions, however illegal, are made with the noblest intention of stimulating an economically depressed community.
éd narrative devices could use more finessing, but script is never really the point with a David O. Russell picture. Though rough around the edges, the script acts more as a platform for detonating dynamic character interactions, and Russell's cast runs wild on it, relishing the camera and strutting to the rhythms of a sizzling 70's soundtrack that includes practically every hit of the era... except, for some reason, “Do the Hustle”.
Bale – whose bathroom scale must be going back and forth like a metronome at the rate he gains and loses weight for his roles – has the somewhat unenviable task of headlining a comedy but being forced to play straight man to everyone else, and he is nevertheless successful in creating a lovably gruff crook who the audience can feel good about rooting for;
Adams is reliably electric as the seductive Sydney, although it is possible that she draws our gaze more because of Michael Wilkinson's deliciously gaudy glam-garb than anything else, but she exudes personality to match the wardrobe;
Cooper, almost as if to juxtapose the comical curls on his head, foams at the mouth like a rabid poodle, especially in his scenes with his FBI supervisor played hilariously by Louis C.K.;
As for Lawrence, I question the wisdom of casting the young Hollywood “it-girl” for a role in which an older actress would have been more plausible, but there's no denying that she adds real comic spark to every one of her scenes (and comically real sparks in one particular scene involving a foil-wrapped dinner and her brand new microwave “science oven”).
But however proficient Russell's direction of his actors, it can never fully compensate for the deficiencies of his writing. The humour is thoroughly enjoyed but quickly forgotten. Ironically, the film's most affecting moments come when Russell lays off the laughs and zeros in on Irving as he wrestles with the ethical dilemma of designing a good man's downfall, but such moments are few and far between.
Regardless, it would take someone who is deader on the inside than disco to not have a good time watching American Hustle. If some facets of Russell's filmmaking still require improvement, it may be because he's certainly worked hard at developing those that succeed. Taken as companion to his other screwball ensemble pieces from recent years, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle is arguably the best of them.
*** out of ****