Big Hair, Bad Scams, Motormouths
By MANOHLA DARGIS (NYT Critics' Pick)
December 12, 2013
Irving Rosenfeld, the con man running the great scam in “American Hustle,” isn’t, his mistress admits, much to look at. He has a belly the size of a beer keg and a torturously complicated comb-over that he arranges with the fastidiousness of a Michelin-starred pastry chef. Appearances are not everything to Irving (Christian Bale), but rather just part of the swindle that is his life’s work, his passion and genius. The confidence game is his honey pot: It’s what lines his pockets, lights his fire and cigars, and has transformed the mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), into his equal in theft and dissimulation, making her the Rosalind Russell to his Cary Grant in a romp that’s pure Scorsese screwball.
Only the director here is David O. Russell, who, more than any other contemporary American filmmaker, has reinvigorated screwball comedy, partly by insisting that men and women talk to one another. To that end, that chatter, written by Mr. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, is fast, dirty, intemperate, hilarious and largely in service to the art of the con, specifically the Abscam scandal that almost incidentally inspired the story. The real scandal dates back to 1978 and an F.B.I. investigation into political corruption that found agents posing as wealthy sheikhs anxious to buy off public officials. (Abscam was short for Arab scam, or the nominally less derogatory Abdul scam.) The swindle netted a trove of greasy-palmed politicians, but also charges of entrapment.
The movie tracks the scandal primarily from the points of view of Irving and Sydney, whose he-said, she-said voice-overs are interspersed with adenoidal dispatches from his stay-at-home wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). After setting the contemporary scene, Mr. Russell cuts back to Irving’s childhood, sketching in the con man’s background with brief, funny scenes and a devil-may-care take on criminality that pointedly mirrors the trajectory of Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas.” Like Paul Thomas Anderson, whose period bacchanal “Boogie Nights” also borrows from “GoodFellas,” Mr. Russell is a cinematic Son of Scorsese. Yet while his swooping cameras and motor-mouth characters follow in the virtuosic wake of Mr. Scorsese, they’re equally beholden to Mr. Scorsese’s own influences, including the Golden Hollywood likes of the director Raoul Walsh.
Mr. Scorsese once called Walsh’s 1939 post-World-War-I crime film, “The Roaring Twenties,” a “twisted Horatio Alger story,” a thumbnail description that also fits “American Hustle.” Corrupt politicos and a federal Venus’ flytrap give the movie a veneer of topicality, and there’s plenty in it that matches up with the historical record, including the role played by Irving’s true-crime counterpart, a Bronx-born swindler named Mel Weinberg. Even so, Mr. Russell doesn’t seem all that interested in veracity, and the movie opens with a playful assurance that “some of this actually happened,” a declaration that feels calculated to block off-point objections that some of it didn’t happen. Details have been changed, and everyone, as is often the case in movies, looks younger and prettier, less lumpy and beaten down by life than the original players, even Irving and his magnificently tragic, trumped-up hair.
The attention that Irving bestows on his mop — the movie opens with him whipping it up into a spritzed froth — is emblematic of a life lived as a masquerade. There was something about him, Sydney says in voice-over, “he had this confidence that drew me to him.” A classic type as essential to the American Dream as Horatio Alger, if one who’s ditched honor in favor of hustling, Irving doesn’t pull himself up by his own bootstraps; instead, he steals the boots off some stooge and then sells them back to their original owner at twice the price. He dwells in that shady space between faith and doubt, between our divinely given, legally sanctioned national confidence (“In God We Trust”) and the deep, routinely vindicated recognition that it’s all a con. (Never give a sucker an even break.)
Once Irving’s and Sydney’s back stories are set in place, the movie is off and running. The two join forces personally and professionally after meeting at a party where Irving — resplendent in swimming trunks, gold chains nestling in a thatch of chest fur and a stomach that suggests he’s far into his third trimester — works his magic. Mutually smitten, they begin swindling desperate people who, unable to secure legitimate bank loans, hand over wads of cash in hopes of receiving bigger advances. One mark turns out to be an F.B.I. agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, very good), who uses them to run a bigger con, one he hopes will bag politicians like a New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, excellent), whose decency is tested by his ambitions.
Mr. Bale has long been a great actor, if not an especially likable screen presence — in this, he’s the opposite of Ms. Adams and Ms. Lawrence, who are both talented and appealing — and he’s leaned toward cool, even cold characters, mask or no mask. It’s a pleasure to see him warm up, soften up, not only because he looks as if he were having a good time, but also because he’s extraordinary here. In the past, his performances have occasionally felt like a begrudgingly presented gift to the audience, as he offered us his technique while keeping the more recognizably human part of himself out of reach. Maybe Mr. Russell, who directed Mr. Bale in “The Fighter,” wore him down.
Or perhaps Mr. Bale found pathos in Irving and dignity in this small, striving, vulgar man’s life. Whatever the reasons, Mr. Bale, like some other stars who embrace playing ugly, feels as if he’d been liberated by all the pounds he’s packed on and by his character’s molting looks, an emancipation that’s most evident in his delicately intimate, moving moments with Ms. Adams and Ms. Lawrence. Hilarious and brassy, by turns reminiscent of Jean Harlow and Judy Holliday, Ms. Lawrence is a bountiful delight even in a smallish role, partly because of her magnetism and partly because Mr. Russell is one of the few American male directors working today who’s as interested in women as he is in men. This may be about a famous federal sting, but, like all of his movies, it’s also a love story (or two).
As Irving’s other better half, Ms. Adams, a virtuoso of perkiness, goes deeper here than she’s ever been allowed to. She showed an indelibly darker, more dangerous side in a supporting role in Mr. Anderson’s “Master,” playing Lady Macbeth to a cult leader; she has a lot more to do in “American Hustle.” Like Irving, Sydney is a self-invention, one containing multitudes, from the former stripper she starts off as, to the elegant British noblewoman she pretends to be for the couple’s loan scams. With her bright eyes and alabaster gleam, Ms. Adams can look like a porcelain doll, a deceptive mien that helps complicate Sydney and turns an unpredictable character into a thrillingly wild one, whose ordinary scream is the howl of a wolf.
“American Hustle” giddily embraces the excesses of its era, from spandex to ’staches, though it’s a farce that speaks as well to this tarnished age. Some of its extravagances are purely decorative, and the costume and production designers, along with the hairstylist, must have had a blast. But all the shiny surfaces, the glitter ball and the gaudiness, also suggest a world in which everyone is anxious to shake off the post-Vietnam War, post-Watergate funk. The ghost of Richard M. Nixon hovers in the air; everyone is a fake and everyone wears a mask, even Richie, the F.B.I. agent with the Chia Pet perm. And then there’s Irving and Sydney. “We’ve got to get over on all these guys,” she tells him, when the scam seems to be going south. They may have to do the hustle but they’ll be doing it together.
“American Hustle” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Corrupt politicians.
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by David O. Russell; written by Eric Warren Singer and Mr. Russell; director of photography, Linus Sandgren; edited by Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten; music by Danny Elfman; production design by Judy Becker; costumes by Michael Wilkinson; produced by Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison and Jonathan Gordon; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes.
WITH: Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Louis C. K. (Stoddard Thorsen), Jack Huston (Pete Musane), Michael Peña (Paco Hernandez/Sheik Abdullah), Shea Whigham (Carl Elway), Alessandro Nivola (Anthony Amado), Elisabeth Rohm (Dolly Polito) and Paul Herman (Alfonse Simone).