David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013) is a big, powerful muscle car, the kind they used to make. It’s sleek and sexy, unabashed and striking, all testosterone and burning rubber. When driven well, the movie has all the parts for a great ride, but I couldn’t help but feel that we spent too much time a gear or two lower than where we should have been. The moments when we really let the engine out are thrilling, but they’re also a bit of a reminder that, in a perfect world, all the moments could have been that way.
The story is that of the American dream, the idea that you can be whoever you want to be, as long as you convince enough people that you are. It’s the mid-’70s and we start with a ritual of male vanity, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), preparing his head for a toupee and a comb-over. As the movie unfolds and the sheer tonnage of deceptions pulled off and attempted by Rosenfeld becomes incalculable, we retroactively discover that the sizable bald spot on his head, daily covered by artifice, might be the only truly genuine part of him. He’s a con man, a small-timer grifting desperate people out of investments. Alongside him is Sydney (Amy Adams), also known as the Lady Edith Greensly, who is rarely seen with a V-neck that doesn’t plunge to her belly button. She helps distract the marks with her charm and her “connections in London.” She’s from New Mexico but affects a fake accent (and I mean fake—like Irving’s toupee, the accent is fairly obvious but, like the best deceptions, the most obvious convince best).
Their romance is a whirlwind one, intense and powerful but ultimately unstable; these are two people whose business is distrust, and neither can feel totally at ease that the other isn’t marking them. Irving owns a chain of dry cleaners and they have trysts in the middle of a moving clothes rack. Dresses and suits whiz by as they embrace each other, a sad metaphor of how when they are together, they are the calm at the center of the tornado but also, as we’ll find out, just how close they are to the whirling chaos around them. I loved this moment; it made me also think of the earliest film projectors. Irving and Sydney are seen through the gaps between the revolving clothes just as Muybridge’s horse was seen through the slats of the zoopraxiscope. It makes their romance seem like an illusion or that they both are comprised of smoke and mirrors, a theory that the rest of the movie works out.
Complicating things is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a neurotic homebody who has long since fallen out of love with Irving (he’s done the same) but who keeps a tight leash on him because of her son, whom he adopted, which she uses as a prop in her power game. It’s hard to blame her; he spends his days and nights with Sydney and keeps Rosalyn completely in the dark about his wheelings and dealings. Dealings that catch the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who busts the pair and offers them freedom in exchange for the means and expertise to bring down a number of bigger fish. One of those fish is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who is tireless in his efforts to revitalize the area with large investments into casinos in Atlantic City. Polito is a true public servant, but he’s a big name and may have connections to even more prestigious collars that the ambitious DiMaso covets so he forces Irving to go after him. Soon the mob is involved, high-ranking political officials are brought into it, Rosalyn, heretofore banned from Irving’s cons, makes her presence felt in a big way and as the money totals keep getting higher and the stakes raise considerably, the whole thing spins out of control.
Much of this is exhilarating. Expertly rendered by a uniformly fine cast that deceives us while it deceives each other and smoothly and stylishly brought across by Russell in a ballet of swirling camera work that mirrors the whirlpool of lies and betrayals the characters find themselves in. Everybody is out for a bigger chunk, desperate to make a larger score, so that the Jenga tower gets taller and taller and it’s a multi-directional contest in which everyone tries to make sure its the next guy who gets stuck holding the piece when the whole thing comes down. Even the saintly Carmine, led along by Irving, gets eyes as big as saucers when he realizes the potential of the bullshit (except he doesn’t know it’s bullshit) and suddenly he’s able to make deals with the wrong type of people to get what he’s after. The only character with any sort of restraint is Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), Richie’s boss at the FBI, who cautions the whole operation. Stoddard is the moral voice of the movie and, fittingly, no one will let him speak. He tells a story about ice fishing in Michigan that promises to bring everything into perspective but he’s never allowed to finish it. These people don’t have time for parables; they have to move forward or they die, or worse, people will notice they aren’t moving forward.
The movie reminded me of Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (2013) because it has a similarly fine ensemble cast competing against each other for exponentially expanding prizes, the competition for which spirals desperately out of control. The Counselor remains the superior movie, however, because it had me dizzily caught up in the unraveling where American Hustle kept me at arms’ length. I kept feeling as if I were being sold something that I knew better than to buy and my instincts were to keep my guard up, engendered by the movie itself, preventing me from taking the wild ride it promised the characters were on. When Russell is at his best, he’s at his most disarming, and that elegant comic grace, which he can apply even to war scenes, was too often absent. The Scorsese touches that dominate the movie (though Scorsese would have explained the inner workings of the scam better) work just fine; it was Russell’s ability to channel Sturges, so present and essential to the success of last year’s Silver Linings Playbook (and to a less extent Three Kings) that were missing. There’s a lightness that isn’t here, keeping the zaniness more grounded that it should be.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t funny in parts; often times it’s hilarious, especially in the fireworks between Irvin and Rosalyn as Bale and Lawrence light up the screen as sort of “Honeymooners” on crack. Cooper’s manic vanity and cocksure bravado play nicely against C.K’s meekly argued conscience. Adams is particularly fine keeping everyone guessing, deftly switching allegiances and doing just the right things to pit each faction against the other. She’s the most Sturgesian thing in the movie, channeling Barbara Stanwyck with her phony English accent (The Lady Edith, more like The Lady Eve ), and she is phenomenal when she teases a jellified Cooper with all the verve of classic screwball. She wears a million masks but not a single bra.
Too often, though, American Hustle is less playful than it should be. When things are getting out of control, it’s only the storytelling that comes loose. The middle section drags when it should be building up to the finale (which still does, all told, pay off fairly nicely). For all the flourishes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a movie about such bizarre people—in which nobody from the con men to the mob to the FBI seems to know what they’re doing—would feel so monotonous. These issues don’t keep the movie from being a good one, though, just from being a great one. If American Hustle is ultimately a little less than the sum of its parts, that’s acceptable. Those are some parts.