If there was an Oscar for Best Comb-Over…
Main Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams
Director: David O. Russell
I did not want to see American Hustle. I was alive in the 1970s, and the whole thing just looked like a bad fashion nightmare from my childhood. But when something gets nominated for a whole boatload of Oscars, I pay attention. I’m not sorry I did.
American Hustle is a fictionalized account of the Abscam scandal in which various public officials were caught taking bribes. I don’t remember the details and you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy the movie. There is some remote factual accuracy here, but if you’re looking for a history lesson, look elsewhere. The real fun of the movie isn’t in the scam/heist/con/scandal – eventually you’ll get lost in the details – it’s in the dialogue, performances and glorious excess of the period setting.
We enter the story as Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale packing about 40 extra pounds and one of the most glorious comb-overs in history) is running a con on a local mayor in the Atlantic City area. As it falls apart, we go back – back to when Irving met Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and their con artist path to that hotel room was laid. We meet Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper sporting a Brady perm), the cop who brought Irving and Sydney, against their will, into his ever expanding plan to bust every public official he could corner for, well, something (we also meet his boss who in a stroke of absolute casting genius is played by Louis C.K.). We meet Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a politician who really cares about the people in his city and isn’t afraid to cut a few corners to revitalize the area. We also meet Irving’s wife Rosalyn. Yeah, he has one of those – she’s played by Jennifer Lawrence. This amazing cast gets to have a blast dressing up, breaking down, working cons, and generally screwing up everyone and everything in their paths. It’s a lot of fun.
Where American Hustle works best is in its characters. Not only are they played with great enthusiasm, they’re also terrific composites of 1970’s stereotypes. Bad hair, bad clothes, bad habits and bad behavior were the orders of the day and these folks indulge liberally in all of them. Screenwriters David O. Russell (who also directed) and Eric Warren Singer set the stage with terrific situations and dialogue and Russell then allows his actors to stretch what they’re given and make it new and fresh. For every tense, emotional scene there’s one that’s just silly, which adds to the chaotic atmosphere and gives the entire production a dark, funny edge.
Bale and Adams are the ones who lead the way, creating characters that are somehow smart, stupid, charming and repulsive all at the same time. We laugh at them, but we feel for them as things spiral out of control, too. Lawrence and Cooper have broader, less complicated characters to play with, giving them even more freedom to push Richie and Rosalyn way, way over the top in some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie.
The production design, costumes, hair and make-up all deserve a mention, since the 70s was not a pretty time and it’s captured in all its glorious hideousness. From side-boob to boy-perm, American Hustle has it all. Even if you have absolutely no interest in the movie itself, it’s worth finding a way to see the opening scene of Irving preparing his hair for the day. I think we watched it three times.
Overall, American Hustle is a fast paced, beautifully staged and gleefully acted story of ridiculous excess of all kinds. Go into it with an open mind, don’t worry too much about historical accuracy or the details of the various plots and stings and cons and enjoy it for the chaos fueled actors dream that it is. 4 stars out of 5 and a far more enthusiastic recommendation than I ever anticipated giving.