'American Hustle' Can't Close the Deal

David O. Russell's celebration of excess and ABSCAM packs a glitzy cast in insane outfits, but as a con job in its own right, it's never all that believable.

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The Film

American Hustle

The Director

David O. Russell, riding high on two consecutive Oscar nominations and a complete revitalization of his career, after the twin fiascos of Nailed and calling Lily Tomlin the c-word.

The Cast

Essentially a mashup of the casts of Russell's last two films, with The Fighter's Christian Bale and Amy Adams joining Silver Linings Playbook's Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, with a dash of Jeremy Renner and Louis CK, plus a cameo from the Silver Linings Playbook cast that is neither Jacki Weaver nor Julia Stiles, so you figure it out.

The Plot

Christian Bale is a loan shark and small-time scammer who hooks up with Amy Adams to become medium-time scammers, until they're busted by FBI agent Bradley Cooper, who's as on the make as they are, only his ambition is to take down an ever more high-profile list of corrupt public officials and the criminals they're in bed with. So Cooper flips Bale and Adams and puts them to work on what will become ABSCAM, an elaborate sting operation meant to take down, among other people, the pompadour'd mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner). Bale's spoiled, crazy, loud, cheated-on wife is played by Jennifer Lawrence and is here to be trashy and funny and make Bale look more sympathetic by comparison, and when she finally is allowed to enter the actual plot of the film, she fucks evvvvverything up.

The Hairstyles and Costumes

Setting a film in the late-'70s/early-'80s is to current-day filmmakers what setting a film in the 1960s was to filmmakers in the '90s (follow me?). That is to say, it's a blank check for production-design excess, purposefully tacky costumes, and laughably gaudy hairstyles. Last year, Argo blew their budget on so many wide collars and fake mustaches that they ran out of shirts for Ben Affleck. Hustle has taken this kind of period excess and shot it out of a cannon. Every scene heralds something garish and (intentionally) tacky. The hair alone, from Cooper's tight home perm to Bale's Trump-ian combover to Renner and Lawrence engaging in a bouffant arms race that will surely bury us all, is worth a deep dive of its own. But by the time Amy Adams struts through some dry ice with a crimped wig made from 12,000 discarded Ginger Spice dolls from 1997, the impact has dulled somewhat.

Baseline Believability

Russell's world is all surface. All artiface. It's surely intentional, this movie about scammers should naturally have some degree of facade to it. But even if these people aren't supposed to have rich inner lives, you still have to believe them in order to follow them along through their desperate little schemes. But there wasn't a second I spent watching American Hustle where I wasn't acutely aware I was looking at five very well-paid actors playing dress-up. Actually, that's not entirely true ...

The Performances

Amy Adams is straight-up terrific. She's handed the character that makes the least sense in the film—magazine-writer Sydney, who longs to break free of her mundane world, shack up with married gross person Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), and don an affected English accent in order to lure people into loan-shark scams. Why is she doing this? Oh, you know. Self-actualization or the American dream or something. The point is: WOW, look at how low-cut her dress is! Despite this leaf-in-a-breeze of a character, Adams nails her down, getting to the heart of her desperation and delivering the only character who feels like a lived-in person. Even done up in ostentatious curlers and given reams of redundant dialogue wherein she has to explain every blessed facet of her emotions, she still manages to hold onto some inner secrets. Something she can't say out loud, no matter how much Russell prods her to. Previous to Hustle, Adams had done the best work of her career in Russell's The Fighter, and if this talking wig of a movie does nothing else, it has at least proved that the Adams/Russell combo is the one I'd most like to see continue to flourish.

Nobody else can match Adams's level here. Bradley Cooper comes close, cocky and opportunistic as he is as an FBI agent whose ambition serves the save function as Ray Liotta's coke habit does in Goodfellas (a movie Russell borrows from heavily). Jeremy Renner is also solid, but his character is drawn with almost no dimension on the page. He's the victim in all this, an innocent lamb of a politician whose true concern for his community makes bastards of those who might take him down. 

Bale's performance is the usual Bale thing, and if you're a fan of that, God bless you, and you might make it out of American Hustle with more of a spring in your step. I found him full of the usual self-conscious vocal tics and method weirdness he always brings to the table. He's exactly what Russell is looking for—surface on top of more surface—but it's exhausting watching an actor riff on a Bronx accent for two-plus hours in lieu of delivering a character.

Jennifer Lawrence ... is an actress I love. I just got finished marveling at her continued exploits as Katniss Everdeen. Here, she's given all the room in the world to create a monster, and she sure does. The script absolutely cuts her loose, and for a while, she walks the razor's edge between the ridiculous and the sublime, tossing out blowsy one-liners and pulling the occasional face. But there's a point where the movie stops caring about her beyond the harpy-nightmare function she serves to the plot, at which point Lawrence embarks upon a Zellwegerian Cold Mountain march to the sea, trampling all other scene partners in her path, towards what certainly looks to be an Oscar nomination, maybe even another win. Girl goes big, but despite whatever accolades come her way, it's a miscalculation, and kind of an embarrassing one.

The Music

All of it. All of the music. Especially all of the music that sounds like Marty Scorsese might have used it in one of his films. There's a new music cue every thirty seconds, or at least it feels that way, and they all feel exactly as self-conscious as the costumes and hairdos. There are, of course, bright spots—a movie that was simply 130 minutes of Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper dancing to Donna Summer would be absolutely just fine with me.

The Scumbag Imperative

I don't need to like the characters in a movie for me to enjoy the movie. I don't necessarily have to believe characters are realistic for me to enjoy the movie. I don't need the events of a movie to be pleasant for me to enjoy the movie. It's when all three fail at once that problems emerge, and that's where I stand with American Hustle. If you're going to give me abhorrent jerks doing awful things and then tell me it's all in service to a portrait of American greed and opportunism, I have to believe it. If you're going to give me a burlesque show of costumes and accents and crime and poorly supported motivations, at least make me like the players. The Charming Scumbag is my least favorite character type by a wide margin, and December 2013 is overloading my schedule with them. I can only hope The Wolf of Wall Street does a better job getting me to buy what they're selling.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.