American Hustle

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The best scene in the spazzy, long-winded, 1970s-set shaggy-dog story American Hustle is the opening one, in which the paunch-bellied grifter Irving Rosenfeld gets gussied up in a hotel room ahead of a crucial con job. Writer-director David O. Russell lingers over the details of his dressing process, his clothing and accessories, leading to the coup de grâce: the toupee and combover. Irving’s fussing over his hair-do is emblematic of everything right and wrong with Russell’s confidence-game comedy-thriller. First, there’s the hair itself: luxurious on the back and sides where it still grows naturally but, on the top where it doesn’t are lanks of hair layered under and over the tribble-like hairpiece that Irving oh-so-carefully cements into place square atop his crown. This shot holds for quite a while as Christian Bale, in a terrific tragicomic performance, arranges and adjusts his precious combover, perfecting this sad illusion offset by his beard and his use of ’70s-style aviator sunglasses.

As an exercise in constructing a comic character, this is wonderful stuff. We’re awed, appalled yet somehow drawn to Irving, as detailed by Russell and played by Bale. The dynamic of period details and performance is what works so well in Hustle, but the film’s comic virtuosity is surrounded by an unrelenting tornado of visual style that eventually serves as a smokescreen to cover up the fact that there isn’t much of a story here.

When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) blows the lid off the fraudulent lending operation run by Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, who gamely commands the film’s dramatic and comedic tones), he gives them an ultimatum: Do time or help him stage an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt New Jersey politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the effusive mayor of Camden. Irving and Sydney take Richie up on it, developing a scheme they know will reel in Polito: They tell the mayor that a Middle Eastern sheik is ready to invest hundreds of millions into revamping the down-in-the-dumps Atlantic City into a modern gambling mecca. They dupe Polito, but soon Irving and Sydney finds themselves in over their heads when the mafia also wants in on the action. This all makes the cocky, career-driven Richie giddy with delusions of his own greatness, especially after several politicians take bribes to help speed up what they believe to be a huge windfall for their state.

Irving and Sydney, meanwhile, find their relationship under strain. This is really the story struggling for breath at the heart of the film’s smothering style and con-game theatrics: A love triangle in which the plucky survivalist Sydney leverages her sex appeal vis-à-vis the horny, crazy-for-love Richie to gain the loyalty of the sad-sack Irving, really the love of her life but who’s married (unhappily) to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his crackpot Jersey-wife who’s in turn using her son as leverage to keep Irving from divorcing her. The chemistry that this triangle sparks among all the above makes it fun to sift through their tacit deceptions and ulterior loyalties, and it’s where Russell approximates most successfully his gift for depicting how love and sex can trigger comedic anarchy.

On balance, the con game in Hustle, the real-life, so-called Abscam scandal, is a non-starter. A cameo by Robert De Niro as a seasoned mafioso is meant to instill suspense and fear, but it registers only as a gimmick of an aging star riffing on his on-screen legacy. And the actual sting in which Congressmen consent to take the bribes from Irving and company doesn’t read as a clever ruse to bring down bad guys; in legal terms, it’s only entrapment, a play that only a dunderhead like Richie would think is ingenious, but, in reality, is just pressuring people to make a bad choice for what they believe to be a good cause. The only legitimate sting in Hustle takes place over a couple of minutes toward the end, when Irving and Sydney attempt to pull out the rug from under Richie. But now it’s too little, too late.

By the end, more successful than any of the cons on-screen is the con Hustle plays on its audience, which has now sat through two hours of every ’70s hair and wardrobe cliche, an enjoyable but predictable 70s pop soundtrack and a camera that refuses to sit the hell still. There’s hardly a shot in this film that doesn’t involve the camera flying into or away from a character’s face, presumably to accentuate their drug-addled, anxiety-ridden vortex; the style becomes so repetitious that it soon becomes a lampoon of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and After Hours (both better films by a long shot). Once you’ve untangled the film’s style, which over-wraps the story–exactly as Irving’s combover shrouds the lie underneath–you’ve got a hollow shell of an enterprise, filled only by the hot air of homage, gimmicks and throwbacks. As the end credits roll, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Grade: C
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Alessandro Nivola

12 comments

  1. This review is so impressively accurate that it some what gave me necessary closure on the 2 hours I just lost. You comment on the visual cover-up powdered on the plot makes me feel a little less isolated in thinking this movie was kin to the metaphor Lawrence’s character turns into a mantra-you know the one about garbage perfume and how it somehow lures you in but reeks… Yeah, still scratching my head on it all, wondering how in the world it’s bound for any award… Best movie of the year because were three days into it. It truly is a con.

    1. Thanks, Christian. Man, I’d totally forgotten about the nail polish comment that Lawrence’s metaphor made. I think it might actually be the perfect metaphor for this movie, even more so than the combover!

    2. Thank goodness for these review/replies. Other reviews convinced us we were unique in our disappointment. We assumed we must have missed something in the plot due to boredom and inattention. I personally think the best ‘Con’ dramas should be like illusionist’s acts – sharp, fast paced, complex, surprising and ending an intelligent, unexpected twist. This movie had none of these. Although the actors demonstrated talent and tried hard, the characters they were obliged to represent were more like cliched comedy specimens – in a movie that wasn’t funny. The humour that did occur appeared out of synch with the overall plot. However, there was a final twist – the twist at the end was as unexpectedly dull as the rest.

  2. Absolutely spot on Jay. It was an empty exercise and style, but not that stylish. Aside from the camera adoring Amy Adams, there was little to hold your attention. The con was barely there, Bradley Cooper’s character motivations where it Radick to the point of absurdity, and the naked aping of Goodfellas almost seemed like caricature rather than homage. Long, tedious and without real drama, this was a huge disappointment.

  3. Really great review. came out of the cinema not having a clue what had just happened, the same feeling I had after watching anchorman 2, as well as being judged by everyone I was with for saying this was a terrible movie. looking at rottentomatoes after seeing this film was a shock. How this film scored anything above 30% is beyond me. I believe this film was trying to be too clever, with so many irrelevant plot twists covering for many of the horrible inaccuracies, e.g. De Niro, as mentioned above, is supposed to be this maniac killer? Yet after finding out his boss had been conned simply disappears? This is the mafia we are talking about… Within thirty minutes of this film I was getting restless. After the first hour I was making some weird origami art with my cinema ticket, and by the time 2 hours came round I was dying. Such a boring film with far too much style and far too little substance.

  4. This film stunk. It was a case of the Emperor wearing no clothes and everyone oohing and ahhing that he wasn’t naked–the acting was tedious (sadly particularly Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence who both seemed to be trying so so hard to be out there and yet, as all “good girl” actresses seem to do, deciding they’ll take a “strip and flaunt your breasts” part to get on everyone’s radar), the story non-existent–and I tried watching it three different times and couldn’t see what the hoohaa was.

  5. I walked out and thought, “There was no there, there.” I mean anytime you have attractive people in slow-mo to awesome music you’re supposed to love it, Right? I’m grateful for this review and the comments that helped me feel a little more sane in a world of people going gaga over this movie. Mr. Russell himself said, “It’s more of a character study”. Great! Could you announce from now on, “There’s no plot or substance, I just like working with Christian Bale.” That would be really helpful.

  6. Great review and as Christian said it gave me closure, the whole film I was thinking this reminds me of Goodfellas but I am not interested in anything that is happening.

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