Published Dec 19, 2013David O. Russell gathers some of his favourite collaborators (Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter, and Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro from Silver Linings Playbook) to play dress-up and pretend in this con-art film about political corruption in New Jersey in the late 1970s. And while Bale in particular embraces the opportunity to add weight, lose hair and stoop through a quite compelling performance, ultimately this show is as much an empty shell game as the con its characters are trying to pull off, albeit an engrossing one.
Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a petty con man running a variety of small schemes whose ambitions grow when he meets Sydney Prosser (Adams), whose aura of class, and her British accent, lends credibility to a loan shark scheme Rosenfeld pulls on unsuspecting rubes. Bale's Rosenfeld is a disgusting mess, sporting a disastrously convoluted bird's nest comb-over; Adams' Prosser is immediately so much smarter and more sophisticated that it strains credibility that they'd connect as deeply as American Hustle would have us believe. (The fact that there are separate voice-overs from each character explaining their attraction is an early red flag that storytelling holes are being spackled over.)
Their unsubtle cons bring the attention of one particularly unstable FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who dives deep into their scams in an effort to manipulate them into landing some even bigger fish, in the form of senators, congressmen and other political bigwigs.
Their scheme involves using local Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (a pompadoured Jeremy Renner) to convince state officials to allow investments from Middle Eastern oil barons in an effort to turn Atlantic City into an East coast Vegas. Since there are no barons and no briefcases full of cash, DiMaso uses Rosenfeld and Prosser, via Polito, to set up various bribe handoffs and meetings in order to entrap corrupt officials in their sting.
These schemes involve a lot of moving parts, complicated by the fact that DiMaso gets little support from his FBI overseers (including a stern, exasperated Louis C.K. as his immediate superior): fake Sheiks, briefcase bribes and enough flash to convince naive Americans that a billionaire is in their midst.
Through the various schemes and machinations, American Hustle plays like a convoluted Goodfellas for dummies — Russell is seemingly bored by the details of the schemes and cares little how nonsensical the entire plot is. He's only concerned about how compelling his characters are, and one in particular saves the movie in its second half: Jennifer Lawrence.
As little sense as it may make, Lawrence plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving's wife and mother of his child. (They're separated; she refuses to give him the satisfaction of a divorce, despite knowing of his affair with Prosser.) She steals the film's second half with a brash, brassy performance that's equal parts real housewife of New Jersey and Lorraine Bracco's Karen Hill. Lawrence is truly spectacular — funny, sexy, dim and clever.
However, Jennifer Lawrence is 23 years old and playing first wife to Christian Bale. Amy Adams, as the "fresh" face who catches the eye of Bale's character, is the same age he is — they're both 39. As spectacular as Lawrence is, she's 16 years younger; it would be a fascinating exercise to have them swap parts in the film. (Similarly, Cooper was apparently going to play Bale's part when he was initially unable to commit.)
In the end, American Hustle is a fun exercise in watching four great performances delight in the ridiculousness of the exercise at hand: Cooper sports a headful of tight curls, while Adams treats her British accent like a huge football pitch to range around on. Lawrence demonstrates that she's game for any role, and Bale adds another log to the fire on which he'd like to sacrifice Daniel Day Lewis's method acting. It's a fun watch, no doubt, but as storytelling, it's problematic, and as a coherent accounting of true events (the film opens with "some of this actually happened") it's a disaster. Still, there are few actors you'd rather watch fiddle as David O. Russell's sense of coherent storytelling burns.