Film Review: A Gleefully Subversive “American Hustle”

“American Hustle” has its flaws, major and minor, but it’s very entertaining and contains some great performances, especially by the female cast members.

American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell. At cinemas around New England.

By Betsy Sherman

The cast of "American Hustle."

The cast of “American Hustle.”

With a fertile imagination and subversive glee, David O. Russell assembles characters that become attached to each other as if by Chinese finger traps: they may try to pull away, but they can’t escape. Granted, they’re often family members who don’t have much choice other than to learn to live together. This sticky configuration started with his debut feature Spanking the Monkey (in which the liaisons were downright dangerous) and continued in Flirting With Disaster, The Fighter, and Silver Linings Playbook. The foursome in his new American Hustle isn’t connected by blood but by heat. This heat is generated in some measure by lust, in some measure by greed, but chiefly by the very American compulsion to rise above the Average Joe or Jane–to be someone to be reckoned with, to carve out one’s own space in this world.

Set in New York and New Jersey (although filmed largely in Massachusetts) in 1978, with the attendant visual razzle-dazzle of that tacky, tacky time and a K-tel-rrific soundtrack of ‘70s hits, American Hustle is exhilarating. It’s such a popper of a movie that I went to see it a second time just to get my bearings. While it has its flaws, major and minor, it’s very entertaining and contains some great performances, especially by the female cast members.

Like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle is a comic dramatization of real-life dirty dealings in this country’s recent past. In Russell’s movie, it’s the Abscam scandal, in which a few Congressmen, one U.S. Senator, and some other politicians were videotaped by the FBI as they promised favors to, and accepted briefcases full of money from, a phony Arab sheikh. The movie’s opening disclaimer declares that “some of this actually happened.” But whereas Scorsese creates a giddy Brueghel painting of a specific place and time, in the process depicting a subculture that has direct relevance to the financial meltdown of 2008, Russell presents a collection of faceted cubist portraits of characters who could be plopped down in other times and places. Theirs is an eternal struggle, in spite of the disco diva trappings.

As Irving Rosenfeld, a character based on the real-life con man pressured into helping the FBI ensnare their prey, a startlingly chubby Christian Bale sports double-knit suits, tinted glasses and an elaborate comb-over. Irv is the first of the ensemble to speak to us in a Goodfellas-esque voice-over. Raised in the Bronx, he has his fingers in pies legitimate (a plate glass business, a dry cleaner’s) and not so much (he sells forged art and scams desperate people into thinking he can get them loans). He has ceased to be interested in his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), but dotes on her son, whom he’s adopted.

Irv finds a soulmate in stripper-turned-journalist Sydney (Amy Adams). As they become lovers, the voice-over switches to her. She’s impressed by Irv’s financial prospects, but even more so by the chance his con game gives her to shed her skin and reinvent herself. With a weak-tea English accent and a dollop of Carnaby Street charm, she becomes Lady Edith Greensly, who assures suckers she has London banking connections.

The third voice-over relay runner is undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (a very funny Bradley Cooper), who penetrates the scam but will let Irv and “Edith” off the hook if they can help him catch bigger fish. A ball of reckless energy, Richie envisions himself rising to a place of glory within the Bureau. His first target is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a heart-on-his-sleeve Jersey politician who isn’t fussy about the means with which he arrives at the ends that serve his beloved constituents. The operation snowballs with the prospect of Mob involvement in the rebuilding of Atlantic City. Then a directive comes from Richie’s boss: “pinch me some Congressmen!” Meanwhile, sparks between Richie and “Edith”—Sydney assures the jealous Irv she’s just manipulating the fed—are ready to combust.

As for Irv’s wife Rosalyn, she doesn’t get a voice-over, but she doesn’t need one—she’ll say what’s on her mind out loud. Russell gifts Lawrence with a pure screwball role, one that made me think of Estelle Parsons in Bonnie and Clyde. Rosalyn is the member of the foursome who’s not in on the action, but who could derail the plan in an instant. Lawrence’s mini-setpieces, like her sing-along to “Live and Let Die,” shake up an already slap-happy movie, but I wouldn’t want to part with any of them.

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in "American Hustle"

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in “American Hustle”

Another reason I wanted to see American Hustle a second time was because I just couldn’t feel an Irv there. Heck, Christian Bale made me believe he was a Pennsylvania steelworker in the otherwise awful Out of the Furnace, but I didn’t believe for a second he was the Bronx Jew inside that bulk and fake hair. Even if Bale and Russell were going “jewgene” (a Jew who thinks he’s Italian) with Irv, they shouldn’t have settled for having the actor do a Robert De Niro impression for the duration (especially when De Niro himself shows up in the picture as an emissary for Meyer Lansky). A great character actor would have had a field day, because Irv is a role with rich possibilities that just weren’t realized.

The standout performance by far–well, the only apt phrase is, “It’s Amy Adams’ world, we just live in it.” The actress endows Sydney with such a force of will that it’s breathtaking. Although she has genuine affection and compassion for Irv, her patience has a limit—she’s got to move forward. Adams gives Sydney grown-up street smarts but also a bit of teenage bravado in the way the con-woman uses her body as a (ahem) booby trap.

There are drawbacks such as the constant movement of the camera, which supplies a pleasant rush for a while, but then the constant pushing in closer, closer, closer to the actors’ faces becomes old (you know, you gotta slow down the f’in Tilt-a-Whirl at some point). Then it just hardly seems to matter, once Louis CK comes back on screen as the FBI middle-manager who tries in vain to temper Richie’s juggernaut, or Cooper is shown with his hair in curlers, or there are such pleasurably authentic little characterizations from Elisabeth Rohm as Carmine’s wife or Patsy Meck as Richie’s mother. The parts are definitely better than the whole. Oh well, I can con myself into being satisfied with an American Hustle I like, even if it isn’t the American Hustle I think I deserve.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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