Best. Combover. Ever. Really, if there’s something you need to see in the movie American Hustle, it’s Christian Bale gluing a Chia Pet to his head, and then combing the sparse, overlong wisps of hair still on his head into a coif that would have Donald Trump bowing down in awe. But that’s the opening scene, so you definitely won’t miss it. What about the rest of the film? American Hustle is getting a ton of award-season buzz for good reason; it’s one of the best films this year, combining drama, thriller and old-fashion crime-caper shenanigans with laugh-out-loud moments that let off steam at just the right moments. Yeah, like an all-star cast and the guy that directed Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter would give you anything less.
How do I love thee, American Hustle? Lemme count the ways. First off, there’s the crazy-cool opening credits sequence that looks like a cross between 70s Movie-of-the-week and old-school porno. Lots of “neon” design, mustard and brown. Groovy baby. Then, there’s the opening scenes with cinematography that harkens back to the good old days of Hollywood storytelling (kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren, whose work should be tapped for Oscar consideration if there’s any justice in this world.) A title card that simply says “Some of this actually happened”, which lets viewers know that this’ll be a ride that’ll inform and make you laugh. The story itself, about Abscam, a moment in history that is vaguely remembered for busting politicians and giving the American people the sneaking suspicion that things going on behind-the-scenes may not be white-hat worthy.
For Hustle, director David O. Russell gathers his darlings from Silver Linings Playbook — Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence — along with The Fighter stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Bale plays conman Irving Rosenfeld, who together with his mistress Sydney Prosser, happily scam people out of their hard-earned. Y’know, until they get busted by FBI agent Ritchie DiMaso (Cooper, rockin’ his best Justin Timberlake post-Mousketeer ‘do), all pin-curls and ambition. DiMaso forces Rosenfeld and Prosser to work a sting operation for him, and so the group pulls in local politician Carmine Polito (The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner), the Mayor of Atlantic City who just wants to see his town succeed. Throw in legalized gambling, politicians on the take, mob bosses (keep an eye out for Robert De Niro in an uncredited role as – surprise! – mob boss Victor Tellegio) and con-men who don’t like being shackled, and there’s a bunch of thrills and laughs. Yes, laughs. Which reminds me, a standout performance to take note of is Louis C.K. as a tired, paper-pushing FBI supervisor. His weary, beaten-down character is given C.K.’s light touch and deadpan humor. The result is a low-key, almost absurdist look at Government machinations and the people who live to grind it out.
Hustle’s humor relies on the initial con becoming more and more grand as DiMaso tries to bite of much more than he’s able to chew. You can see the commendations dancing in his head as each meeting with his busted cons bring more (unintentional on their part) opportunities for busts to the table. Bale and Adams have great chemistry, and their characters love, fight and try to weather the storm together with a fervor that makes you care for and understand these broken characters. Lawrence has the unforgiving role of Rosenfeld’s needy shrew of a wife Rosalyn, whose voice grates and whose inability to grasp things reminds me of the SNL skit “Wake Up With Kimye”. However, Lawrence’s Rosalyn understands who she is, strengths and weaknesses. It’s a self-knowledge that centers the character, and as with her other roles, Lawrence delivers a fantastic performance while making it look easy. Jeremy Renner, as a good-hearted Mayor that would do black-hearted things to help his constituents rocks a Saturday Night Fever bouffant and an earnestness that makes Polito’s trajectory absolutely heartbreaking. You root for this man, knowing all the while that he’s going to fall.
Gotta love the retro soundtrack too. “Horse With No Name”, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Dirty Work”, “I Saw The Light”, “I Feel Love”, “Rocket Man”, “Poppa Was A Rolling Stone”…so many great songs of the era, and all used to great effect. And let’s not forget Amy Adams’ wardrobe, with so much Halston plunging cleavage that her side-boob should be given a SAG card. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson and lead hair stylist Katherine Gordon nail the era and it’s gritty, sparkly excess. They even have a shout-out to “Frost & Tip”, for cryin’ out loud. (Well, the film does deal with Jersey.)
There’s so much attention to detail in this film that Art Director Jesse Rosenthal — another Russell alum — not only brings the period to life, he reminds those of us that lived through it of things we’d forgotten. There’s old Burger King commercials playing on the radio (“Have it yoooour way….”), velvet flocked wallpaper (shudder of recognition), ornately ugly sofas. Oh man, it’s perfect in it’s shlock.
The climax plays true even to this day, which could be part of Hustle’s resonance; Good Guys will always go after the “little fish” because catching them is easy. Abscam may or may not have played out like American Hustle, but in watching this film we all see a little bit of truth in this celluloid fable.