American Hustle is a twisty story of corruption and redemption. It’s a con inside a con; a duplicitous provocation that simultaneously fools the characters in the film and the audience in the theater. Most of all, it’s a delirious celebration of thespian acrobatics dressed in baroque period hair, clothes, and settings.
In other words, it’s a lot of fun.
Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) are con artists. They have a particularly precise financial con that preys on the vulnerability and vanity of the corrupt, but this loathsome scam somehow doesn’t make them loathsome people. Partly it’s the confidence of the fakery and the venality of the victims, but mainly it’s that the two are completely honest with each other and crazy in love.
This criminal paradise can’t last. Soon enough, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is in the picture, using legal and emotional manipulation to make these small-fish con artists into bait for bigger, more successful sharks. One thing leads to another, and the presence of a big city mayor (Jeremy Renner), low- and high-level mobsters (Jack Huston, Robert DeNiro) and elected officials (Anthony Zerbe, among others) have made matters uncomfortably complicated—and dangerous.
As noted, the cast runs wild with the 1970s makeup and hair; whoever was responsible for Bale’s comb-over deserves an Oscar. A lot of the acting is great. Adams, especially, makes Sydney complex and mysterious, and Bale’s genuine vanity about his character’s prowess makes his ridiculous appearance almost endearing. De Niro is as scary as he’s ever been in his one key scene. Jennifer Lawrence is getting a lot of praise for her smallish turn as a jealous wife; she proves a wonderful comedienne, which almost makes up for the fact that her accent is terrible and she’s a decade too young for the role.
Even before this weekend’s wide release, there’s been a backlash against the picture’s avalanche of awards and award nominations. Is it, as some critics suggest, too messy, too lightweight? It’s messy, and lightweight, but that’s nothing new for director David O. Russell. American Hustler is serious about its actors, and the way the interactions among the talented cast members create dynamic, entertaining cinema. This is a special kind of alchemy, and worthy of respect. Granted, Russell doesn’t let these explorations wander too far. The director is not taking things outside the acceptable boundaries of mainstream cinema into, say, John Cassavetes territory. Russell’s careful balance between method acting “realness” and what mainstream audiences will accept has allowed many of his films to have conventionally happy endings: three morally compromised soldiers lead a group of Persian Gulf war refugees to safety (Three Kings); a couple of damaged kids find love (Silver Linings Playbook); and an exploited palooka finally punches his way to a championship (The Fighter).
What, you are wondering, is the case with American Hustle? It fits this pattern. Gravitas or not, however, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.