It’s 1978 in New York City, and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is working hard to perfect the mother of all comb-overs. It’s an elaborate and time-intensive endeavor, but if he’s going to do it he wants it done right. He treats his businesses the same way, both the dry cleaning front and the illegal scams he runs on the side, and he’s a success because he works hard, does the job right, and never gets greedy. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his partner both in crime and in the bedroom, is a fan of v-necks and faux British accents, but she’s not too hot on Rosenfeld’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
Trouble arises in the tightly-coiffed form of F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who busts one half of the criminal duo with the intention of coercing them into helping him take down some far bigger fish. Target number one is the easily corruptible Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) from the nearby New Jersey shore, but as DiMaso’s eyes grow at the thought of nabbing even higher profile targets the entire operation threatens to spiral out of control.
It doesn’t bode well for Irving’s tenuously-constructed combover either.
“Some of this actually happened.”
Director David O. Russell‘s first period piece (yeah yeah Three Kings) is a sprawling character piece that uses the F.B.I.’s real-life Abscam sting operation as the narrative backdrop in a tale about how far and fast people will go for the American Dream. The title, American Hustle, is an acknowledgement that the dream doesn’t come easy, and while politicians and gangsters pass before the lens the real focus are the trio of everyday hustlers and con-artists at its core.
Rosenfeld and Prosser are upfront with their desire to con the world around them into thinking they’re something other than what they are, but DiMaso isn’t all that different. All three are trying desperately to reinvent themselves, and cons of varying layers are a part of that deception. Their possible downfall comes from a combination of wild ambition and an ignorance to the fact that while they’re conning each each other each of them are also fooling themselves. As Rosenfeld says, people believe what they want to believe.
Russell’s script, co-written with Eric Singer, is paired beautifully with his high-energy directorial style, and the film’s two-plus hour running time zips by with nary a dull beat to be found. Characters are introduced smoothly even as the first act makes some non-linear jumps, and voice-overs are used to fantastic effect in bringing viewers up to speed. Multiple characters narrate not only their own story, but at times they offer insight into others as well. Like Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, the varied voices add color and personality to an already too-crazy-to-be-true tale.
The cast is equally responsible for the film’s electric energy and effortless watchability with all five of the main players delivering performances that reveal the scared and insecure people beneath the hairspray, gold chains, and pompadours. Bale disappears behind a ginormous belly (exposed in the film’s opening shot), face-covering sunglasses, and that remarkable hairpiece, and while he seems at first to be doing a bit of some sort he manages to earn a surprising amount of empathy. His co-star from Russell’s The Fighter, Adams seems out of her element here wearing nothing but dresses with vulva-reaching necklines and an accent that doesn’t quite ring true, but again, she surprises as Prosser’s layers are pulled back to reveal a girl who’s never stopped running.
The stars of Russell’s previous film, Silver Linings Playbook, reunite here in roles that won’t have you rooting for them but will leave you smiling and entertained all the same. Cooper’s DiMaso is a hyperactive bundle of eagerness whose desire to do good is quickly overshadowed by more base desires, and his own quest for the American Dream comes with a self destructive price. Lawrence meanwhile tackles the film’s showiest role with its loudest performance as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” Rosalyn isn’t the most stable personality, and Lawrence embraces her irreverent and reactionary attitude with a delicious glee. Renner meanwhile pops his Russell cherry with a small but nuanced turn as a good man easily swayed to the dark side.
American Hustle will earn comparisons to the films of Martin Scorsese, but that’s unfair to Russell’s wildly entertaining accomplishment. The film has a vibe similar at times to Goodfellas, but Russell shows a love for his characters that isn’t often present in Scorsese’s films. These con-artists, home-wreckers, cheaters, and pricks aren’t likable people, but you can’t help but like them anyway. It’s a contagious affection, or maybe Russell’s just conning us all.
The Upside: Incredibly funny; wonderfully charismatic and effective performances; finds the pathos beneath the American Dream; smart use of narration; adds “science oven” to our lexicon
The Downside: Comedy undercuts the drama on occasion; feels slighter than probably intended at times
On the Side: Eric Singer’s only other feature script is the far more serious and far less enjoyable The International.