American Hustle never lets you forget what it’s about: bullshit. That’s in part because the film’s cast of polyester-and-sunglasses-decked crooks and cops don't ever stop talking about it. "Bullshit" is their favorite word, thrown about in the movie's many loud, semi-comic verbal blowups—“the real bullshit is your bullshit,” one character screams, characteristically.
But in life and in American Hustle, not all bullshit is equal. Director/writer David O. Russell has called his '70s-set epic the third installment of a trilogy (starting with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) about people trying to reinvent themselves. From the opening shot—Christian Bale with a potbelly, carefully arranging his comb-over in a suite at the Plaza Hotel—it’s clear that in this case, we’re talking about reinvention as an act of deception. But the film suggests that there's worthwhile deception and there's destructive deception, and the difference generally comes down to motivation.
In Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), we have one kind of bullshit. He grew up smashing windows to help his dad, a glass-pane salesman, find clients. Now he’s working, legally and not, to provide for his estranged wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and son. Then he meets Sydney (Amy Adams), a stripper who shares his interest in Duke Ellington. When they go into business together as shady loan agents, it’s in hopes of a better, more secure life. Well, not just that—Sydney affects a posh British accent, Irving falls in love with her ruthlessness, and the two clearly get a rush out of their cons. But still, it’s business.
Until one day, it isn’t. Their racket catches the attention of Richie DiMaso, Bradley Cooper’s hyperactive, ringleted prima donna of an FBI agent. Irving and Sydney can escape prosecution, Richie says, if they work with him to entrap four criminals. So began the real-life Abscam affair, where reformed fraudsters and the cops used a fake Arab sheikh to offer bribes to corrupt politicos. More relevantly, so begins Richie’s education in the arts of swindling. He, too, gets a rush out of lying, but he doesn’t have a conman’s soul. When he bullshits, it's for a career boost, a self-esteem jolt, and maybe to catch a break that’ll let him dump that vanilla fiancée he has back at home.
At the movie's heart lies the push and pull between Richie—who continually craves bigger busts and then botches the execution—and Irving, who preaches caution and wants to build each operation “from the feet up.” Richie’s having fun, Irving’s scared for his life, and Sydney seems to be playing both sides. She hustles better than anyone else: seducing (but not sleeping with) Richie to ensure his loyalty, freezing out Irving to ensure both of their safety, and wielding the truth about her double identity like a weapon.
Mascots for other kinds of fakery figure in as well. There’s Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, whose plateau of a 'do may be the best hairpiece of the movie, which is saying a lot), a goodhearted New Jersey mayor who grudgingly accepts a bribe to help his constituents. And there’s Lawrence playing Rosalyn, Irving's brassy wife who’s mostly incapable of fibbing, a fact that makes her an agent of chaos. But each time she tells the truth out of turn, she ends up helping our heroes—one of the many signs that American Hustle cares a lot less about making the story plausible than about making its allegory work.
But allegory, even decked in fabulous costumes and a killer soundtrack, does not necessarily amount to a great movie. The plot's only marginally less convoluted than the actual Abscam scandal. And it's interrupted time and again for detours into domestic bickering and obligatory-'70s-film cavorting in discos and casinos.
That's not altogether a bad thing, given the talent on screen. Russell gives his actors plenty of space to argue volcanically and shimmy to Donna Summer and rave about chicken piccata. Some of these sequences are hilarious, as with one that revolves around a microwave, or as the befuddled characters call it, a "science oven." Some are tense, as when Robert DeNiro plays a quietly menacing mob boss. And some, such as the one where Lawrence stomps around her house to Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” seem largely meant to inspire GIFs and promotional-trailer material.
But even with all these interludes that flesh out the people, the time period, and the themes, the film never becomes as transporting as it wants to be. That's largely because the characters often seem less like real people than funnily dressed, quip-slinging stand-ins for abstract ideas. Bale, Adams, and Renner do use restraint to communicate that there’s a soul under their wheeling and dealing, but Cooper and Lawrence’s characters seem to have time traveled from Silver Linings Playbook. Without the mental-health and family-trauma context provided in that film, they come off as neurotic cartoons: fun to watch but impossible to relate to.
The final con embodies the film's mix of stylishness, ambition, and clumsiness. Fabricated for the movie, the last act works decently as a gee-whiz moment for the audience. But in order to come up with a resolution to the battle between authentic, righteous deception and the empty, self-aggrandizing kind, Russell contrives a set of hard-to-believe, somewhat confusing circumstances. It's a happy ending, but it feels, frankly, like bullshit.
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