There’s something phony about American Hustle. The wigs are a little too wiggy. The clothes can be hyper-perfect versions of silly 70s outfits. But that phoniness feels right. It feels, strangely, true, since this is a movie about con men creating an entire phony world from, as they say, the feet up.
Based on the true story of Abscam, an FBI sting that toppled New Jersey congressmen and senators, American Hustle is David O. Russell putting his toe in the waters previously tread by Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson. With its constant needledrops and tracking shots and voice over and rise and fall structure, American Hustle is a relative of Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, although never quite as transcendently magical as those two films. Which just means it isn’t one of the greatest movies ever made, so don’t hold that against it.
The phoniness begins right at the start. We meet Christian Bale’s Irv Rosenfeld as he stands in front of a mirror, putting together the most elaborate combover I have ever seen depicted on film. It’s an engineering marvel, held together with spirit gum and confidence. Irv is a con man, a guy who figured out early he’d rather take than be taken. He runs a chain of dry cleaners but his main gig is tricking desperate losers into paying him five grand in an effort to secure non-existent loans.
His partner is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams in a never-ending procession of breathtakingly plunging necklines. She’s as phony as Irv, speaking in an affected English accent and operating as his number two in their ongoing scams. And they’d be happy with it all if it weren’t for Richie DiMaso, a hot-tempered FBI agent who busts them and then gets them working for the Feds in a slowly-escalating series of stings that end up entangling Congress and the mafia.
Bradley Cooper is playing Richie, who is phony in his own way. He wears little curlers in his hair at night when he goes home to live with his mom, but in public he presents himself as the ultimate badass lawman. He’s got a hair trigger and a sly coke habit; it’s hard not to read Richie as a bit of a self-commentary by writer/director David O. Russell (he co-wrote with Eric Singer). Richie’s temper makes him a dangerous asshole, but as long as he’s getting results nobody cares, something very familiar to those who follow the career of this talented but difficult director.
Cooper is back with Russell after last year’s total bullshit Silver Linings Playbook (another hot-tempered guy movie), but this time it all works. Cooper is a guy who is right on the line of being smarmy and a hero, something he got to use way back in Wet Hot American Summer, but has rarely been called on to play with since. Richie is perfect for him; yes, he’s a hero Fed, but under it all he’s kind of a total scumbag. Cooper’s usual antichrist smile is a sign of impending doom in every operation in the movie. It’s glorious, and he’s great.
Bale is terrific as well; he understands that while Irv is kind of a doof his success comes from never realizing that. Potbellied and with that terrible combover, Bale gives Irv all the gravitas and wisdom the character thinks he has while also subtly and constantly allowing himself to be undercut. It’s a nice comedic performance where Bale isn’t usually doing anything funny but allowing the humor to come flowing freely from the reality of Irv.
But both of these guys are totally outclassed by the women. Jennifer Lawrence is Irv’s young wife, Rosalyn, and if the other three leads are absolutely phonies, she’s utterly genuine. Unfortunately she’s genuinely dopey, small-minded, drunk and kind of cluelessly mean spirited. She’s materialistic and lazy but has an instinctual ability to manipulate others, likely because of how absolutely genuine she is. Lawrence is delightful, undone only by an inconsistent accent. When she’s going real New Yawk it’s great, but too often Rosalyn gets a generic American sound to her, pulling the rug out from under the character.
Inconsistent accents are at the heart of Amy Adams’ performance, which is absolutely perfect. I have always enjoyed Adams in the past; she’s an amiable screen presence who always does fine work, but American Hustle is like her coming out party as one of the modern greats. She is working on a level so far beyond everyone else in the movie that she often upstages her co-stars simply by being in the frame. And that’s not just a reference to her décolletage, either (although good lord, the outfits she’s wearing…); she’s just beaming presence in every shot. And while Bale does a pretty good job as a con man discovering his heart of gold, Adams absolutely sells her desperate desire to find some ‘real shit’ in her life full of phoniness.
These strong performances form the backbone of American Hustle; the movie is less concerned with the actual mechanics of corruption or the stings (and even the eventual inclusion of the Mafia is just a kick in the butt for the movie’s pacing) than it is with the way these people bounce off each other. The script is a terrific look at jealousy and rivalry, and in another era this would have been a fast-talking screwball comedy.
It’s strange to see this film coming from David O. Russell. His early career was filled with cynicism, but something changed after I Heart Huckabees. American Hustle has a cynical element to it - the guys who get punished in the end aren’t exactly the bad guys - but the film is too in love with its leads to truly cut them down. Russell is too invested in getting to the happy ending to truly land any of the satirical blows he’s setting up. By the end of American Hustle he’d rather send you out of the theater smiling rather than thinking. That’s okay, but I would love to see what Three Kings-era Russell could have done with this same material.