Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer & David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
Two cartoonishly ’70s-looking men stand in an art gallery gazing at a Rembrandt painting, or at least what one of them thinks is a Rembrandt painting. The other guy, a con man played by Christian Bale, explains with his thick Brooklyn accent that it’s a fake.
“The guy who made this was so good, that it’s real to everybody. Now, who’s the master: the painter or the forger?” he asks.
It’s as if director David O. Russell is speaking through Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) at this moment, pondering the question a little too sincerely. American Hustle, his sleek and contagiously energetic latest endeavor, is also somewhat of a forgery. It’s being released nationwide the week before The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m curious to see which one is more widely praised, the original Scorsese or this loving knockoff.
The frantic voice-over, the constant bombardment of tracking shots mixed with sporadic cutting, the amazing use of rock music- all of the staples from Scorsese’s signature crime films are here. With his previous two features, The Fighter and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, Russell tackled two very different genres (boxing movie and romantic comedy) in his own consistently thrilling and fresh way. Although American Hustle is a much more complicated and sleek film, it feels like a step backward of sorts simply because its stylistic influence is blatant and overused.
It even plays rough and rowdy with history and the time period the same way that Scorsese does in movies like Goodfellas. Turning the Abscam corruption sting case from the late ’70s and early ’80s into such a wildly funny and drugged-out con job makes it decidedly less self-serious then a true life government operation movie like, say, Argo. It barely shows the congressmen caught up in the mob corruption, but rather the push and pull of the government agents and the criminals they enlist (entrap) to help them.
Everyone in this movie is stupid in their own way, except maybe Amy Adams’ character, who is just unlucky. She is the one who takes the fraudulent money from an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), which in turn pulls Rosenfeld, her lover, in to help fry bigger fish.
Rosenfeld is a repulsive slob in the beginning of the movie, and is only sympathetic when it becomes clear to him that everyone is just as crooked as him. The government “good guys” are basically running a post-Watergate publicity stunt and one of the “bad guys,” Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), has a dimwitted, illegal way of trying to jump-start a sluggish economy. As it becomes clear that everyone in the movie is, in their way, conning someone, Rosenfeld starts to feel the burn as the net they are casting continues to widen and involve much bigger fish.
He is matched blow for blow in hairdo grotesqueness by Cooper’s agent Richie DiMaso, a perversely ambitious hothead and drug addict. Both of these performances feel slimy, and both actors capture the disingenuous core of each of the men. Russell has a way of bottling a unique kind of lightning from this very diverse group of performers, which in addition to Adams and Renner also includes an explosive turn by Jennifer Lawrence. As Rosenfeld’s wife, she reveals herself to be the biggest manipulator of the bunch even though she has no initial involvement in the caper.
That is the point Russell seems to be getting at. Tacking a grandiose and vague title like American Hustle onto the story means he’s showing us that all Americans are hustlers, whether they’re in front of the camera, behind it or watching the final product in a theater. The movie is almost aggressively sloppy, diluting this simple theme well past two hours. Even when it’s redundant it’s never dull, though as far as self-conscious Scorsese knockoffs go, I’m still partial to Boogie Nights.