Laughs and crazies in American Hustle

American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell

by Elizabeth Whyte

There’s something about David O. Russell’s directing that makes all the characters in his films seem absolutely bonkers. American Hustle is no different. Russell has combined the big stars from his past two movies, Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and The Fighter (2010), to create a standout lineup, all of whom again deliver fantastic performances: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence. And, true to Russell form, all of them are off their rockers in this movie.

The plot is loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM investigation in the late ‘70s. (The movie kicks off with this tongue-in-cheek sentence: “Some of this actually happened”). But the story is forgettable; this film is more about the manic intensity it takes to con people and the comedy that results when that quality is brought to personal relationships.

Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is a former stripper desperate to be someone she’s not. So she fakes an English accent and takes up with small-time con-man Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) donning a big beer belly and a painstakingly complicated comb-over. They sell fake art and take thousands from people trying to get loans until they get pinned by the feds.

FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is himself a little manic, with a wild-eyed desire to do something big that will keep him from pushing paper all his days. He enlists Rosenfield and Prosser in a scheme to take out fellow con-men, but the scheme keeps getting bigger, and soon they have politicians and Mafia men in their grasp. Meanwhile Rosenfield is juggling his love for Prosser with his marriage to Rosalyn, a sensuously silly Jennifer Lawrence, who in addition to directing domestic tragedies like putting metal in the “science oven” (the microwave), threatens to bring down the whole investigation with her runaway mouth.

At points the film is subtly, ingeniously, laugh-out-loud funny. Both Rosenfield and DiMaso give much attention to their hair, and so when the film starts with DiMaso enraging Rosenfield by ruffling his comb-over, audiences get their first dose of hilarity, combined with slightly uncomfortable emotional instability. It’s that Russell dose of insanity that keeps the jokes from being cheap and allows the film to achieve an emotional depth not normally found in comedies.

Jennifer Lawrence and Christian Bale deserve high marks for their pitch-perfect scenes together. Even though they play slightly into manipulative-wife-and-harried-husband clichè, Rosalyn’s wild personality gives each scene much more to work with. Bale also gracefully portrays Rosenfield’s conflicting desires — he wants to get ahead but doesn’t want to hurt his new politician friend; he wants to leave Rosalyn but not her son.

The film is conspicuously lacking much of a deeper message — a risky move for an Oscar contender. It is light, frothy, funny, with a tinge of melancholy. Prosser’s zeal to transform herself and the futility of DiMaso’s scheme, for which he gets no credit in the end, are themes worth thinking about. But overall the movie stays ridiculous, and audiences looking for more than just an intelligent fun will have to look elsewhere. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie. American Hustle, if it does win some Academy nods, will well deserve them, for, as in other Russell films, there’s some kind of genius in all this insanity.

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