“American Hustle” knows just how clever it is. There are two main characters in the film: charismatic conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who you like even though you know he’ll screw you over, and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the suck up who is trying so hard to charm you, he ends up skeeving you out instead. “American Hustle” wants to be Irving but is really Richie.
“American Hustle” is true to its name. On the surface, it’s about two con artists, Iriving and his partner/moll Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are forced to help the FBI (Richie) take down some crooked politicians and mafioso. It’s as flashy as the sequins on Sydney’s plunging necklines, and it not only knows it, but it revels in it. Like a ’70s wet dream, it has the “Saturday Night Fever” dancing, the perfect soundtrack of Elton John and Wings, the ridiculous velvet suits and the slow-mo shots that glorify it all. It’s hustling you with its glitz and glam — trying to get you to ignore its flaws when, ironically, this only draws you to them.
Because “American Hustle” knows just how good it looks, just how it hits the Scorsese pastiche right on the money, just how over-the-top it is. It’s smug and, even worse, smarmy like Richie, who gets so caught up pretending to be a conman that he becomes one. Director David O. Russell thinks he can take you along for the ride by pulling a con over you, too. The plot becomes overwrought with a who’s conning whom cat and mouse game that makes its 2:09 run time feel like an extra hour. It’s almost as if Russell wanted to cram in yet another fabulous outfit for Adams to sport with each scene, and they are some of the best costumes of the year. When Irving repeats, “I have a plan,” we just hope that Russell has a plan to finally end the movie instead of trying to prove how smart he is.
Yet this is only the surface of “American Hustle.” Like Irving’s elaborate comb over, it’s all a front for something much more vulnerable and deeper. This isn’t really a movie about the ultimate con. It’s a love story of Irving and Sydney, and everything they let get in between them from their work to Irving’s crazy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Each convoluted element of their con is less about scamming politicians and really just a way of getting back at each other, and when Russell remember this the film becomes something more than a battle of wits but a battle of hearts. This is mostly a testament to Adams and Bale’s passionate performances and natural chemistry that lend an authenticity to movie where even the characters’ curls aren’t real. Both actors are masters of saying one thing while really meaning another and lend the film a subtlety its director couldn’t find.
Russell’s direction is much more evident with less experienced actors, Lawrence and Cooper. To her credit, Lawrence turns the hothouse flower that is Rosalyn Rosenfeld into more than just the hilarious caricature of a Long Island housewife she’s written as; she steals every scene she’s in with her pert comedy yet underlying fragility. Cooper, on the other hand, needs to be reigned in as much as Richie does. He taps into the manic energy that propelled such a great performance in Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” but blows it out of proportion here. Whether this is Cooper or Russell’s fault is up to question because “American Hustle” is consistently heavy handed in its storytelling (Irving and Sydney painstakingly narrate the entire film.)
“American Hustle” is entertaining but like any good con, we all leave satisfied but know something is missing. Even with one of the best casts of 2013 and costumes that make you wish it were 1978 again, it’s ultimately a hollow, forgettable caper.