For some people, this will be the film where Lois Lane and Katniss Everdeen are fighting over Batman, who's trying to save Hawkeye from the machinations of ... of ... the guy from Silver Linings Playbook. It sure helps a director when his stock company have more famous gigs elsewhere, even if it's to David O. Russell himself that Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence owe their Oscars. So how else do I describe Russell's new film? Oh, it's That 70s Movie! But how much of a Seventies movie is it when the lead couple's theme song is Duke Ellington's Jeep's Blues as performed Live at Newport in 1956, and the origin of Bale's protagonist is literally Chaplinesque? Jackie Coogan was doing that same thing, breaking windows to stir up trade for Chaplin's glazier business, back in 1921. In many ways, just about all of them good, American Hustle is more a movie movie than a Seventies period piece. I could just as well describe it as an epic Scorsesean farce, a film that may have out-Scorsesed Scorsese himself this Oscar season, with a touch of Capracorn thrown in. It's the funniest film I've seen this year, though I admit that I don't go out of my way to see comedies and I haven't seen the new Coen Bros. picture yet. The audience that braved a cold driving rain for the Sunday afternoon show at the local arthouse laughed throughout and applauded at the end. But there's something more than farce or even satire going on here that may make the picture good for more than a laugh.
While Amy Adams tarts herself up into a Seventies goddess of jiggle and plunging necklines, Bale becomes a sympathetic grotesque, first seen elaborately assembling his hairpiece and combover combo, who somehow sustains a conman's charisma, captivating not only Adams, a fellow grifter, but Lawrence, whom Adams make seem almost frumpy, as the Bale character's estranged yet still-covetous wife. Bale's character, Irving Rosenfeld, rose from those Chaplinesque beginnings to run a chain of laundromats, sell forged paintings, and swindle desperate people with bad credit, promising them $50,000 for $5,000 but never delivering and blaming the victim every time. He's a prosperous sleazebag in love, but the whole point of the childhood flashback is to illustrate that Irving has had to hustle to survive, in a milieu where just about everyone is conning everyone else. By comparison, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) hustles out of ambition. He's not exactly well off, still living with a nagging mother, but if Irving is only a player, Richie is a predator. If Irving and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are just out to fleece people for five grand apiece, Richie is out to destroy people's careers, if not their lives, to advance his own career. Having caught Iriving and Sydney (aka Lady Edith) in a sting, Richie treats them as rungs on his ladder, hoping to use them to entrap bigger fish.
American Hustle is based on the real-life Abscam case and manages to make the FBI, or at least Richie, the villain of the piece. Richie develops a scheme that will invite politicians to take bribes to facilitate the naturalization of a fake Arabian sheik, which will in turn facilitate the development of casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For Richie, the politicians, ranging from local figures to U.S. Senators, are no more than targets. But as he assigns Irving to cultivate the mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Renner), Irving sees the good that Polito has tried to do on the street level and understands the compromises the mayor has had to make and may have to keep making. Irving decides that Polito shouldn't have to go down just to be another scalp on Richie's lance. He also happens to resent the moves Richie has made on Sydney, while Sydney resents Irving's failure to cut loose completely from Rosalyn, a loose cannon who gets to play the wife again during nights on the town with the Politos and eventually knows too much for anyone's good. Since we're talking casinos, why not throw the Mob into the mix, represented by another member of the Russell stock company, Robert de Niro. Why not throw in some more stuff? The key here isn't so much to make sure the audience keeps track of all the complications, though Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer do a good job of that, but to make them appreciate how dangerously complicated things have become and how easily any of the freaks we're following can bring the whole house of cards crashing down.
If there's a point to the Seventies setting, apart from it being the period of Abscam, it's not to mock the decade's music or fashions but to romanticize it as a period when things still seemed possible as long as people were willing to take chances and even get a little shady. Strange to say, here is a movie that is defensive toward politicians. Irving's uncomfortable about Richie's scheme from the first, thinking it wrong to discredit more politicians so soon after Watergate. That may be less an authentic character note than a protest from the screenwriters about a discrediting of politics itself that has only gotten worse since the time of their story. American Hustle can't bother itself to be outraged at politicians taking bribes because, in a curious echo of the ethics of last year's Lincoln, the film seems to see getting one's hands dirty as a sometimes-necessary price of doing the right thing for the most people. And while Richie is no counterpart in thoughts or attitudes to today's right-wingers, there may be something about the essential selfishness of his motives that would make him a substitute for such figures for today's audience.
I'm suggesting a more subtle reading of the picture than will be necessary for most people. You could laugh throughout American Hustle without necessarily having a deeper thought about the implications of the story. If Bradley Cooper plays the villain of the piece, his is one of the great comic villain performances of recent times. There's no moustache twirling but a lot of desperation, horniness and frustration, not just in his pursuit of Sydney but in his rivalry with a skeptical killjoy superior (Louis C.K.) that escalates to violence (it's a rare false note that we actually see the violence after Russell has gotten a laugh out of revealing its aftermath) and triumphant mockery before the fall. While Bale cuts a heroically ludicrous figure throughout, he's practically a straight man for his co-stars, and having to deal with the schemes and threats of Richie and the chaos Rosalyn carries with her keeps him sympathetic in our eyes. If anything, Lawrence gives too chaotic a performance, though that's the fault of writers who needed Rosalyn to do little but create mischief, whether by menacingly kissing Sydney in the ladies' room or by half-wittingly ratting out Richie as an "I.R.S." man to her new Mafia boyfriend. As a performer, though, Lawrence is hilarious and this film will certainly do nothing to slow her meteoric rise. Adams's acting may be overshadowed by the eye candy she provides throughout but she can hold her own with all her high-powered co-stars. Russell's direction often feels at once like a homage to and parody of Scorsese. He has the narration and the use of pop music nailed, but his distinctive touch may be seen when the tension created by scoring a scene where Irving's life is threatened by mobsters to the Live and Let Die theme is leavened by cutting to Rosalyn, who's actually listening and singing along with the record, doing a goofy dance while dusting her furniture. At other moments, as when Richie and Sydney appear as period fashion icons outside a hotel through the smoke of an exploded spotlight to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the imagery and effect is as uncanny as anything Scorsese has done. In many ways, American Hustle feels like an instant classic because Russell has made it in a recognizably classic style. It might not be the best film of 2013, but it's a strong contender for the most entertaining.
Let's close with an encore of Jeep's Blues from the album they listened to in the movie, and as uploaded to YouTube by Jazzman2696.