By Chaz Lipp
“Some of this actually happened.” So reads the opening title card of David O. Russell’s acclaimed con artist caper American Hustle. Not the most prolific director working today, Russell has nonetheless built a deservedly glowing reputation due to his varied, limited, eclectic filmography. With American Hustle he has made the confounding decision to do with so many lesser filmmakers have tried to do before him – he aped Martin Scorsese’s style from start to finish. Nearly every storytelling technique – from the ever-present narration (by more than one character), to the freeze-frames, to the frantic swish pans – is cribbed. No, Scorsese didn’t invent these things, but they’re all part of his visual language. When you package them all together, complete with Christian Bale shamelessly ripping off every mannerism Robert De Niro ever displayed, it becomes Goodfellas or Raging Bull-lite.
Set in the late-‘70s and based rather loosely on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation, Bale stars as con artist extraordinaire Irving Rosenfeld. Overweight and bald (hidden by the worst comb-over in history), Irving still manages to pulls hot chicks. His main squeeze is Sydney Prosser, aka Edith Greensly (Amy Adams) a stripper with a canny ability to pull scams. Together they make tons of cash running a bogus investment agency. Enter mega-permed FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who busts them in an undercover sting, but realizes they’re both so smart they can be used as government allies. Using a phony Arab Sheik and other accomplices, they concoct a complex scheme to uncover corruption within the offices of Camden, New Jersey’s mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Carmine wants to revitalize Atlantic City, but needs the mafia’s approval and assistance to make casino gambling legal.
American Hustle yearns to be a probing character piece, focusing primarily on the interactions of its eccentric group of characters. Irving is forever looking through suspicious eyes at those who covet the two women in his life. Besides his girlfriend Sydney, he’s married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a sexy but emotionally unstable young temptress. Richie has designs on Sydney, despite being engaged himself, but vows not to bed her until the two express true love for each other. No one knows who is conning who. In addition to the aforementioned Scorsese classics, Hustle also recalls another far superior film, Donnie Brasco. The blossoming friendship between Irving and the tragically naïve Carmine mines the same territory that Mike Newell did in his depiction of undercover fed Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) and mobster Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino).
The casting of Robert De Niro as mob boss Victor Tellegio is a stunt that further helps reduce Bale’s stylized performance into a meta joke. Russell wants to have it both ways with Hustle, one part witty, self-aware comedy (think Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty), one part devastatingly raw depiction of the many ways people screw one another over. He winds up with neither. The ABSCAM aspect of the plot is treated so off-handedly that it fails to gel as a retelling of relatively recent current events, along the lines of Argo.
The performances, with the glaring exception of Bale’s staggeringly misguided De Niro impersonation, are all on point. Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence stand out from the pack (which also includes a supporting turn by comedian Louis C.K., much better utilized here than his miscasting in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine). Renner invests a believable earnestness in Carmine that makes the crooked mayor genuinely sympathetic. Lawrence is good enough to make one wish her character had been the movie’s focal point. She plays Rosalyn as a wickedly manipulative, smart-as-a-whip wild card. Her ladies’ room showdown with Amy Adams is arguably the most riveting scene in all of Hustle’s indulgent 138 minutes.
Rapturous reviews and an ever-growing stack of awards and nominations indicate that I’m in the small minority of those who found little redeeming value in American Hustle. Though not without entertainment value, at its core the film is as hollow as the schemes cooked up by its protagonists.