It’s less appealing than his Silver Linings Playbook (read: warm and fuzzy this is not), but David O. Russell’s American Hustle just might be more excitingly stylish filmmaking. It also qualifies as a contender for the title of most amusingly amoral film of the holiday season, though it faces some serious competition from a certain Christmas Day opener that I have seen but that I am forbidden on pain of death from talking about till Christmas Eve. I will note that the Christmas Day movie boasts more dynamic filmmaking, but it’s a very near thing. ‘Tis the season to be cynical, I guess. I don’t mind that, but I find it interesting.
American Hustle takes particular delight in its utter disregard of any historical truth. In fact, it opens by announcing, “Some of this actually happened” (something that should be applied to all fact-based movies), and then proceeds to do what it likes with the barest of facts about the late 1970s Abscam bribery scandal. How much is true and how much is fantasy matters very little to the viewer and even less to the filmmaker. Russell is out to paint an outrageous story about three basically delusional people who insist on burying themselves ever further in duplicitous behavior that cannot end well. Like most con men, they’re all easy marks because they think they’re all too smart to be conned. Worse yet, these folks tend to con themselves.
Russell opens his film in mid-con — focusing on the quirks and stupidities of its main characters. We have Irving Rosenfeld (an out-of-shape Christian Bale) primping his elaborately augmented, glued down and lacquered comb-over. Then there’s his maybe ex-girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), with her phony Brit accent, and the apparent mastermind, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper with tightly curled hair). They’re at odds with each other, but still primed to bribe their mark, Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner with a Wayne Newton coiffure). As one might expect with this crowd, it goes wrong. It hardly matters though, since it will be set “right,” and is only the overture to the screwiness to come. It’s a screwiness I am not even going to attempt to synopsize — partly because it would take far more space than is available here. Also, it’s just more fun to watch this convoluted yarn unravel on its own in a spectacular manner that, in itself, is something of a con.
The great strength of the film lies in two areas — its gleefully demented characters and its ability to look, feel and sound like a genuine product of the 1970s. It’s not just the two con artists (Irving and Sydney) and the glory-seeking FBI man (Richie), who forces them into what can only be called “conning for the bureau.” Everyone in the film is at least a little cracked — and sometimes more. The sometimes more is embodied by Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (a trashed-up Jennifer Lawrence), who is both magnificently dumb and venal (a dangerous combination). For that matter, the FBI itself is pretty bozo-ridden. Seriously, what rational group would try to palm off Michael Peña as an Arab sheik? Why would they listen to Richie’s hare-brained scheme in the first place? Even Richie’s relatively rational immediate superior (Louis C.K.) is not without his quirks. In essence, it’s a profoundly entertaining collection of none-too-bright folks who think they’re smarter than everyone else. And it’s all set to the best soundtrack of the year with especially fine use of ELO’s “10538 Overture,” Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” Bowie’s “Jean Genie,” McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and even the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” Rarely has rampant duplicity and stupidity sounded so good. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas.