American Hustle Con Not Good Enough for Top Marks

American Hustle (2013)
Directed by David O. Russell
Columbia, 138, R (for language and eye-popping cleavage)
* * *

American Hustle is typical of David O’ Russell films like Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, and Silver Linings Playbook in that there’s less here than meets the eye. By his own admission, Russell is more interested in the external trappings he commits to film than in narrative integrity. It shows–in good and bad ways.  

American Hustle was inspired by the Abscam scandal. The time is 1978, just two years after New Jersey voters approved gambling and the year the first Atlantic City casino opened its glitzy doors. Disco was peaking, fashion was loud and ugly, the economy was in the toilet, and factories were folding like a man holding unmatched poker cards. The late 70s were like a disco mirror ball–reflective surfaces devoid of depth that only dazzled when the room was dark. The hustle was a dance rage; it was also a popular economic activity. The FBI launched the Abscam operation (for Arab Scam) to nab hucksters pawning off American assets (and casino licenses) to the highest foreign bidders. The FBI’s fake Middle Eastern business consortium eventually netted some high-powered boys with their fingers in the wrong piggy bank, including six U.S. Representatives, Mayor Angelo Errichetti of Camden, and U. S. Senator Pete Williams of New Jersey. Russell nails the time period’s shallowness, greed, and desperation.

The tale centers on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a low-level con man with a beer gut, an appalling comb over, and a tacky office from which he deals fake art and arranges crooked loan deals. He also operates a few legitimate dry cleaning joints at which clients routinely abandon their threads, because they were too smashed to recall where they left them, or because they were hustled out of the wherewithal to pay the cleaning bill. Irving’s love life and shady business activity leap to the next level when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whose affected British accent, fake aristocratic credentials, plunging necklines, and slit skirts could con a monk out of his habit. Their sweet operation and affair goes awry when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) nails them and offers them a choice between assisting the Feds or rotting in jail–something free bird Sydney couldn’t tolerate and Irving wants to avoid, as he also has a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and an adopted son to whom he’s mightily attached. DiMaso would rather fry big fish, but are any of them up to the racket necessary to contain oily politicians and smooth Mafiosi that leave corpses on the street and ask questions later? (Check out Robert De Niro’s cameo.)

American Hustle is part drama, part comedy, and lots of eye candy–debauched discotheques, raucous Italian-American restaurants, big cars, and urban blight slum tours. But there’s no candy sweeter than Amy Adams. One wag has nominated the double-sided tape she wears for “Best Supporting Actress,” and he’s not wrong–it’s all that stands between Adams and a full display of that with which Nature endowed her. Lawrence is also a head-turner, both for her va-voom physicality and for her chameleon-like ability to be everything except what you’d expect. Both women are amazing in their roles and have rightly carried off Golden Globe awards. Jeremy Renner is also superb as Mayor Carmine Polito, a puffed hair Joe Peschi look-alike and Errichetti stand-in who is slowly reeled into things he probably neither understands nor desires. (Entrapment rules were revamped after Abscam.)

This is the good news. The bad is Christian Bale is miscast. It’s not his fault and he worked hard to get into the character as it was written, but that character stretches credulity to the point where we stop believing it. A knockout like Sydney could do much better than an overweight, underdressed, intellectual lightweight like Irving. Louis C. K. is also miscast as DiMaso’s superior, Stoddard Thurston, and does little except provide some very loud screaming and some very cheap slapstick. Bradley Cooper is more present than impressive, and most of the male parts in American Hustle are all surfaces–like the mirror ball. A bit like the script. The plot seems more complicated than it is because there are continuity holes the size of Bally’s Casino.

I suspect that surfaces were Russell’s intention. Everyone hustles. Got that. But films  with more double crosses than a tic-tack-toe tournament have been done many times, and better than this–think Body Heat, The Grifters, House of Games, Intolerable Cruelty, The Spanish Prisoner, Up in the Air, and The Sting. Boston Globe reviewer Ty Burr liked American Hustle, but called it “an exuberant con job of a movie.” Con job is harsh, but David O. Russell reminds me of the wicked smart kid that should be my top scholar but is content to carry an 82 average and hopes he can con me into a B by semester’s end. Not this time: American Hustle gets a B-.   Rob Weir

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