American Hustle opens with a balding and pot-bellied Christian Bale performing the intricate ritual of arranging his combover. There’s some obvious symbolism in his character, Irving Rosenfeld, pretending to be someone he’s not: He’s a con man, leading desperate people on with the promise of loans that will never materialize in exchange for some very real fees. As his partner and lover, Amy Adams masquerades as an English noblewoman with ties to British banks.
But the scene, full of glue and merkins and hairspray, also hints at one of the film’s weaknesses: It is very concerned with how it looks. The film is set in the late 1970s in New Jersey and Long Island, and director David O. Russell wants to make sure you know it. This was clear from the earliest promotional posters, which showed off the clothes, hairstyles, and, in the case of the female cast members, cleavage of the era.
American Hustle centres around Irving, a fairly successful con man married to a woman he doesn’t love but who has a son he does. He meets Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, who falls for Irving’s bravado and the potential to reinvent herself. If the “Incredibly hot woman falls for fat, balding, but confident man” concept is cliched, Adams & Bale make it work. Bale has a sort of fatter, smarter Burt Reynolds vibe going for him, and Adams mixes naivete and ambition effectively.
Sydney helps Irving take his cons to the next level, and they’re fabulously successful until they’re (somehow) caught in the act by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso promises to let them off the hook if they help him catch some bigger fish, which leads them to Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a basically good guy who just needs a little help kickstarting his city’s economy.
The film beings to sprawl and crawl here, as Russell tries to balance the storylines of all his characters: Irving tries to deal with Richie, and the competing demands of Sydney and his wife; Sydney, agitated by Irving’s reluctance to leave his wife, flirts with Richie; Richie falls for Sydney, and wants more and more out of his operation.
Meanwhile, Irving develops sympathies for Carmine, who’s just trying to do some good work for his community. One wonders why Irving never developed any sympathy for the other desperate men he conned, but never mind; Bale and Renner work well together, and sell the emotions of the story, if not the logic.
If Bale and Adams, and to a lesser extent Renner and Bale, provide a solid emotional core to the film, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper trample it with performances that veer wildly out of control. Lawrence is a hoot as Rosenfeld’s young, attractive, and chaotic wife, but she’s way out of proportion to Bale’s laid-back and restrained performance. For much of the film, she appears to be doing a drunker, trashier Lucille Ball impersonation, creating havoc at home while complaining that her husband never lets her join in his schemes. There’s a strong scene early on where she refuses the notion of a divorce by reminding her husband that she knows a lot of dirt, but it’s quickly buried by a recurring gag of her setting fires.
Bradley Cooper doesn’t fare nearly as well: As the FBI agent whose ambition quickly outscales his intelligence, he’s amusingly buffoonish for a while, but grows harsher and less likeable without getting any more interesting. He chafes under the limits of his boss (Louis CK, who gets the most out of his low-key, Louis-CK delivery), but gets his way by going straight to his boss’ more ambitious boss. He wants to be an FBI superstar, he wants to fall in love with Amy Adams’ fictionally British beauty, and he wants his life to be more interesting and exciting than it really is. Ultimately, he’s just a dick, lacking the character to be sympathetic or the flair to be funny.
One wonders if DiMaso is meant to be a focal point for the film: Even as a law-and-order type who proclaims to know what’s right and what’s wrong, he falls prey to the allure of the hustle. He may have nobler intentions, but the motivation is the same: Greed. He’s never satisfied with what’s in front of him, always setting his sights on a bigger, better prize.
But if he’s a symbol, he’s a simple and obvious one: He lives with his mother, but he wants to be a famous and successful FBI agent who’s married to Amy Adams. Duh. Where both Irving and Sydney get some back story to flesh out their psyches, Richie gets nothing, and Cooper doesn’t give us much to work with between the lines. Richie as viewed by Irving or Sydney might be an interesting element to the film, but there’s not enough there for the character to stand on his own. He’s too ridiculous to be taken seriously, but too serious and earnest to function as comic relief.
Perhaps it all comes down to the hair: While Bale’s combover is certainly ludicrous, there’s a kind of quiet dignity to Irving Rosenfeld’s careful self-delusion. But later in the film, when Richie appears at home with his hair in curlers, talking to his mother about his great future, he’s merely sad and laughable. Bale and Cooper both sport a variety of bad hair and ludicrous fashions, but Cooper gives the impression of a man attending a costume party, always a little bit ironic and self-conscious.
American Hustle straddles the fiction/reality fence with limited success: The film announces that “Some of this actually happened”; it’s based on real events, but there are enough dramatic liberties taken that it can hardly be considered a docudrama or biopic. This odd level of reality hampers the film: Since it’s all based in reality, the cons don’t have a great dramatic flair to them – they’re plausible, relatively straightforward, and Irving prefers to keep them as low-stakes and grounded as possible. That makes it all a bit underwhelming if you’re expecting something along the lines of Oceans 11, or even an average episode of Leverage.
American Hustle is a con movie without a great con, a character piece without enough good characters, a comedy that’s not funny enough.There are a lot of things to like about it, but when they’re put together, it just kind of sits there. There are scenes that work marvelously, where the actors really click together, but they’re often followed up by a dull scene that moves the plot forward six inches, or one that swerves away wildly in tone. There are some great performances, but many of them don’t belong in the same movie together.
Much like its characters, American Hustle is one thing, but trying to be several other things. It’s got all the finest players and dressed them up in fancy clothes, but ultimately they’re trying to sell something that’s not really there.