There’s always a risk in any “period piece” that a director’s obsession with the style and atmosphere of a different era will overwhelm the story. (For a recent example, see TNT’s woeful drama Mob City.) In those cases, a gaudy exterior is all that stands between the viewer and his or her realization that the dolled-up narrative playing out on screen is hollow at the core. In the case of American Hustle, though, director David O. Russell had more than just some styling ‘70s clothes, retro tunes, and at least five incidences of amazing hair; he had Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper, and Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence—four of the most exciting actors on the planet. Those are some serious weapons, and they can account for the odd flaw or two. The actual story? Well, it had to be just good enough to get by, really.
And that’s exactly what the story was: Just good enough.
In case that has the subtle ring of negativity, let me reveal my cards: American Hustle is insanely fun. I hate that word “fun,” but in this case it’s a great fit. The performances from the main players are universally hilarious, the sets and costumes are perfect, and the plot is tense enough to make you care. It’s also an interesting film, but only while you’re watching. Afterward, you realize that the narrative—very, very loosely based on the famous ABSCAM FBI sting of the ‘70s, an unfaithfulness the Russell owns up to at the start with the title card: “Some of these things actually happened”—was a little thin, a little unbelievable, but you didn’t care then, and you really don’t care now.
The screenplay, re-written by Russell from Eric Warren Singer’s draft that has been around Hollywood for years, centers on the con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Bale). He’s a shambling, mumbling grifter without a hint of self-awareness, and his only real vanity is his hair, which is parted and somehow pasted onto his bald dome, creating the world’s worst—and best—combover. Bale being Bale, he disappears into the role until you forget he’s there at all, and under his care, Rosenfeld becomes a likable swindler. (It’s also the first evidence since American Psycho that yes, Bale can do funny.) Rosenfeld’s operation goes from small to large when he meets Sydney Prosser (Adams), a woman who uses a British alter-ego as an escape from a boring life, and who, as far as I could tell, never wore a dress or blouse that even attempted to cover the middle of her chest. The pair are blissfully in love as they steal money from suckers in a hazy investment scam (again, details aren’t foremost on Russell’s to-do list), and there are only two problems.
First, Rosenfeld is married to Rosalyn (Lawrence), a mawkish housewife who is equal parts drama queen and pathological liar. Second, and more pressing, the FBI is onto theme in the form of Richie DiMaso. Bradley Cooper plays the agent in hysterical fashion, with frantic, fast-paced dialogue and a manic energy that is clearly a boon and a hindrance to his career all at the same time. He’s the perfect foil to his fuddy-duddy boss, Stoddard Thorsen (played by Louis C.K. with ponderous, uber-sensible Midwestern frankness). Irving and Sydney know the FBI has them in a bad place, but Sydney also recognizes that DiMaso’s intense ambition makes him a perfect mark.
And so they play ball while simultaneously running their own risky con on the side. The stakes are high; they need to avoid jail time, for one, but they also need to rescue their relationship. As if things weren’t hard enough, DiMaso leads them right into the lair of the East Coast mafia. That’s where they encounter Carmine Polito (Renner), the savvy Newark mayor with a caring heart and a wonderful pompadour who knows that in order to help the people of his city, he has to work with some pretty scary gangsters. Polito gets roped in to the sting operation, along with some high-placed politicians, and soon Irving and Sydney find themselves over their heads as mob boss Victor Tellegio (played by Robert DeNiro, with a very terrifying old-school iciness) enters the fray. With death now on the table, the climax is a witty, careening ride complete with ambiguous loyalties and the requisite twists; call it The Thomas Crown Affair with a better sense of humor.
For those lovers of ‘70s cinema who miss the gritty, realist approach of directors like Hal Ashby and Bob Rafelson and Robert Altman, I’m sorry to say that American Hustle isn’t your fix. Russell gives his characters all the proper adornments, and the buildings and streets generally look period-correct, but there’s a very modern gloss on this movie that gives it the slick feel of a ‘70s-themed costume party rather than the original item. This is a film to be enjoyed for its eccentric performances; a hyper, engrossing dramedy of relationships. It may not benefit you to look too deep, but the truth is that Russell and his excellent cast have made the surface so appealing that it won’t even cross your mind.
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Release Date: Dec. 13, 2013 (limited), Dec. 20, 2013 (wide)