Part con movie, part gangster film, part mocking period piece, American Hustle is goofy fun.
Love and Work
Irving (Christian Bale) has always a hustler. As a child whose father was in the glass business, he wasn’t above throwing rocks through windows. Now he makes money through his dry cleaning business, which is also a front for conning art buyers. Irving and Sydney (Amy Adams) they trade back stories when they fall in love at a party over Duke Ellington. She was a stripper before she came to New York, determined to make it. She landed a job at Cosmopolitan magazine apparently through sheer willpower.
R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Irving and Sydney go into business together — not dry cleaning but scamming art buyers. Sydney takes on a mostly plausible English accent and the name “Edith.” It’s not until later (oops, spoiler alert) that we discover Irving has a son, whom he adopted when he married his mother, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Rosalyn is not at all happy about the other woman.
Irving and “Edtih” get busted by an FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Here’s how good Richie is at his job: he doesn’t realize that “Edith” has another name. Maybe he was blinded by love. He and Edith fall in love, which makes it difficult to work with Irving and Edith (which is already difficult because of Irving’s wife Rosalyn.
Richie’s bold career move is to offer Irving and Edith immunity if these help him trap some bigger players. The plot expands to include mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) of Atlantic City, New Jersey, Mafiosi from Florida, “Arab” investors played by Latino FBI agents, and cash contributions to a lot of U.S. Senators — all in the name of redeveloping Atlantic City.
If you’re my age or older you might remember something called “Abscam.” This movie is ostensibly inspired by that news cycle, though even my political-junkie wife couldn’t vouch for the details.
Nobody’s In Charge
Writer/director David O. Russell (Eric Singer co-scripted) de-emphasizes the details of the caper by focusing closely on the personalities. So Bale’s awful hair — a glued-down combover — and the utter seriousness with which he treats it are an unending source of comedy. Ditto for Bradley Cooper’s Jheri curled white-man’s afro. Bale’s soft belly (not a prosthetic!) is only somewhat less funny, but consider that it all hangs out while Sydney is falling in love with him. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence fight over this impressive masculine physical specimen as though they see through the polyester suit and giant aviator glasses to the handsome Bale.
Most performances in American Hustle are very good, but Amy Adams’ is particularly winning. Through it all, she actually seems to love the two men in her life. I looked for signs that she was the mastermind, stringing them along, but she is earnest about both of them. I think that one of American Hustle ‘s strengths is that it doesn’t set any one character up as being a mastermind. Nobody is in control. Only briefly does a Florida mobster show up to assess the situation. Needless to say, he is not impressed.
The weak point for me is the deliberately unintelligible plot. Russell clearly opts for chaos over clarity. That adds a frenetic energy that gives the movie a dizzying sensation that is appropriate and fun. But it’s hard to say American Hustle is a masterpiece because of it. If I had seen American Hustle any time of the year except early December, I suspect I would have been more generous. But appearing as it has on many “top ten” lists, just as the voting happens, made me feel like I was being, well, hustled, into awarding the film more praise than it deserves.