If you notice one thing about American Hustle, it’s that director David O. Russell has recreated the late-1970s with queasy vividness. Most people don’t notice a second thing. This is a movie that’s built on a specific era and the styles that went with it, and because we’re talking about what my brother has always called the Fashion Depression, those styles are so ridiculous it’s hard to understand how they were ever considered appealing. Russell piles on the broad lapels, the beefy kneckties, the garish wallpaper and, above all, the hair that seems, in retrospect, to have defined the decade more than politics or sports or any other part of the culture. He piles them on with a hyperstylized exaggeration that feels like a con artist’s misdirection. But what is Russell distracting us from? Maybe it’s the film’s shortcomings as anything other than a glossary of hair don’ts.
Based loosely on the Abscam Scandal, it tells the story of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), owner of a chain of dry cleaners, and dealer in stolen and forged art. Along with his mistress, Sydney (Amy Adams), Irving begins to move into a more lucrative game—offering fake loans and making off with the applicants’ deposits (why the marks don’t simply go back up to their office with bricks and bats is unclear). But more lucrative also means riskier and higher profile. Soon they’re arrested by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and offered a deal: If they help DiMaso arrest four more marks, they’ll go free. DiMaso is motivated by ambition, but also by his attraction to Sydney. Soon the three are embroiled in a love triangle, Sydney hatches a plan to manipulate DiMaso, and DiMaso realizes he can best help his career not by targeting Irving’s usual small-fish customers, but by entrapping popular politicians—like Camden, NJ mayor Carmine Polito, a man-of-the-people who turns out to be one of the few honest characters in the movie.
Irving is called a master con man, but one of the movie’s many problems is that none of his cons seem either complex or clever. The movie itself is also called a comedy, but despite an overall tone of wry absurdity, there are very few laugh-out-loud moments. It might also be classified as a drama or a character study, but most of the characters are barely written. It isn’t unusual for a Russell film to defy easy categorization, but his best work is hard to identify in the good way: its disparate parts, characters, and impulses come together into something entirely unique, harmony from discord. Here, the parts don’t come together into much of anything.
This is a movie that wants to be about truth and lies, and the nature of both. It wants to be about the ubiquity of the con. And it wants to be about the authenticity that can somehow grow in an environment of utter fakery. Nearly everyone in this movie is on the make, and it wants to explore the idea that it isn’t just career criminals like Irving, or duplicitous climbers like DiMaso, or crooked politicians, who’ll do or say anything to get what they need and want. Even the movie’s secondary characters, like Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, whose character Irving calls, in one of the movie’s many memorable, perfectly nonsensical turns of phrase, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate”), and DiMaso’s sleazy operations boss, Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola), lie and manipulate and do what they have to do to get what they want and need. Even the filmmakers are in on the con (“Some of this actually happened,” reads a title card at the film’s beginning, making it clear that they’ll do what they have to go tell a good story). One of the movie’s taglines serves as its ostensible thesis: “Everyone hustles to survive.”
But this is Russell. He might have a thesis, but that doesn’t mean he can prove it. His strength and weakness as a director has always been his willingness to wander, and here, he wanders far and wide. The plan to entrap four marks becomes a plan to entrap politicians, which then becomes a plan to connect Polito with an Arab sheik to fund a casino, and then a plan to grease the wheels to get the sheik citizenship, and then the mob gets involved. Playing across and under and in between all of this is the love triangle, plus Rosalyn’s dim neediness and Irving’s love for Rosalyn’s son, who he’s adopted, and DiMaso’s relationship with his milquetoast boss. In movies like Flirting With Disaster and Spanking the Monkey and Three Kings, Russell unspooled his plot threads with manic energy and irresistible momentum, and everything landed where it needed to land, the digressions adding layers of tension and pathos and humor. At his best Russell can command the chaos, but he hasn’t been at his best in a while, and he’s not here.
The movie has its pleasures. Bale’s weary patience with Rosalyn’s off-kilter recklessness is a joy to behold. Likewise, Cooper—an actor who’s smart enough to run from the pretty-boy roles he might have made a lazy, lucrative career from, but not experienced or skilled enough to make much of the more interesting roles he’s landed—has scenes with Louis CK (playing DiMaso’s boss, Stoddard Thorsen) that are right in Russell’s wheelhouse: the sane trying to make sense of the mad, calm order descending into strange and specific bedlam, irresistible chaos meeting immovable patience.
And then there’s the acting, which seems to be a divisive issue among audiences (who seem to love it) and critics (who tend to hate it). If I’m forced to choose, I’d say it works. You don’t watch a Russell film to see acting as a craft, as controlled, precise art. Russell has a reputation as a good actor’s director, but that’s like saying a good parent is the one who lets his kids stay out all night without supervision. Russell is merely an indulgent director, and the performances he gets reflect that: actorly actors will police their own worst impulses, and those with less discipline will fly off the rails. Bale falls into the former category, and he manages to make the most of his role, giving Irving the loyalty and heart to explain his choices and predicaments. In a single weary glance he can to convey everything about the con man’s life: the compromises, the need to always be on guard, the blurring of real and pretend, even to oneself. Most everyone else falls into the latter category. At the manic, overwrought end of the scale is Cooper, who’s starting to be like a good-looking Sam Rockwell: performances that are all charismatic parts, no cohesive whole, all gestures and ticks and zany impulses, no actual person. At times, his performance seems like a continuation of his work in Silver Linings Playbook. (Maybe he and Lawrence will just play charismatic crazy people in Russell movies for the rest of their lives.) Mostly, though, what you feel for the actors is pity as they try to project something meaningful through the clothes and hair. It’s hard to make people care when you’ve just gotten a pie to the face.
But maybe the quality of the acting is beside the point. After all, who can even see the acting through all this fashion, decor and, above all, highly stylized period hair? It’s tempting to wonder if this isn’t how the movie is designed, because I suspect that if it were less stylized, its flaws would show more clearly. There’s a scene in which Irving, with his elaborate combover, DiMaso, with his drum-tight Jheri curl, and Polito, with a pompadour that wouldn’t be out of place on Johnny Suede’s head, gather in a room and the collective absurdity of the hair begins to become impossible to ignore, awareness of it comes on like the whine of swarming insects, rising in pitch and blotting out everything else—the wandering dialogue and plot (which somehow manages to be both overstuffed and desperately threadbare), the performances, the scenes that have come before and scenes that might follow, tensions and crosscurrents—in a kind of horrifying apocalypse of coiffure. Is the scene any good? I can’t even remember what happened in it. But I’ll never forget the hair.
To anyone who watched Russell’s growth into one of the most distinct and subversive cinematic sensibilities in American film, his emergence as a perennial Oscar nominee is the strangest thing in the world. He’s done it in part by tackling genre stories: whacky dysfunctional family dramedies, underdog sports stories, and feel-good, lightweight heist films where the plot’s not too complex and everything comes out all right in the end. But true genre requires structure. You have to hit your marks. Genre is a machine that has to work just so. And a predictable machine is the last place David O. Russell belongs.