The first scene of American Hustle is perfect: professional con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) slowly, painstakingly, applies a small hairpiece, the foundation of a bizarre and elaborate (yet somehow confidently worn) comb-over. He carries himself as a man who at first seems not to understand how ridiculous he appears. We realize only later, thanks in large part to a brilliant performance by Bale, that Irving is more perceptive and complex than we initially take him for. In the same way, David O. Russell's film is itself a hustle—a hyperactive assault of craft and style so confident in its delivery that it seems to think we won't realize what a bare-bones scaffolding it's hung on. Only once the movie is fully in motion does it become totally clear that there is a genius behind Russell's madness.
The film seems at times directed by Bradley Cooper's character from last year's Silver Linings Playbook (also directed by Russell)—there is a manic logic and zeal with which the story hurtles forward from plot point to plot point without ever seeming workmanlike. In the first half-hour we're introduced to Rosenfeld, his mistress and partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), all in such a whirlwind fashion that we keep expecting a moment to stop and collect ourselves. The arc from Rosenfeld and Prosser first meeting all the way up to the point where they've built a successful con operation selling art forgeries and fake loans takes around 20 minutes—their relationship develops not through careful dialogue but by Russell's reliance on the audience's familiarity with archetypes and storytelling conventions to fill in the blanks.
I was torn during the first act of American Hustle. It was undeniably well made, very funny, well acted—but it felt shallow. I felt like we were watching Russell zip through a promising outline rather than telling a cohesive story. The movie felt at odds with itself, trying to cram in character development that wasn't really there, as when the Rosenfeld and Prosser characters deliver overlapping voice-overs relating how they met and what they thought of each other.
It wasn't until the second act that Russell's priorities began to fully click. The movie starts in media res, right as what seems like a crucial part of what we assume will be the central con goes wrong. Jumping back to the “beginning” of the story, we then get the character introductions, the story setup, and an explanation of how Rosenfeld and Prosser, caught in an FBI sting by DiMaso, began working for the Bureau to catch larger criminals. We assume due to classic movie structure that the whole running time will be spent building the story to the point where we first came in, and so it seems sloppy and hurried for Russell to gloss over some more intimate character moments or key details about the planning and setup of the operation. We're evaluating everything as an essential piece that will gradually build to that first scene.
Then, about 45 minutes into the movie, Russell hits that scene and blows past it without blinking. It's a great moment because it exposes how much we rely on pre-formed expectations of narrative—without being overtly “meta,” the movie shows how easy it is to pull one over on an audience whose trust you've gained implicitly. This is a con movie, but it's not about the apparatus of a con itself—it's about how we can make an image, a strongly projected but artificial surface, mean 99% of the whole.
Ultimately what this speaks to is how we exercise control over others, and if it weren't for the quartet of outstanding performances from Adams, Bale, Lawrence, and Cooper, American Hustle would fall apart under its own manic ambition. But yet again—as with Silver Linings Playbook—Russell has managed an ensemble the collective quality of which borders on the absurd. Not a single actor steps wrong, which is increasingly surprising as the movie progresses and we realize each and every character (with the exception of an appropriately befuddled Louis C.K.) is at least a little deranged.
Bale may seem at first to have the hardest role, as he is required to portray underneath Irving's seemingly clueless exterior a keen enough survival sense to know when he's out of his depth and overmatched—the recent surprise over his Oscar nomination can only be coming from people who haven't seen the movie or weren't paying attention. But it's likely Amy Adams who had the most significant challenge, as a woman who seems to be inventing herself as she goes along—sometimes literally, as when she slyly lapses into and out of her fake English accent when she's caught off guard.
American Hustle eventually becomes a near-mockery of the classic con-movie setup, and as it starts to sink in that the film isn't going to show us in any detail how various aspects of the central—and constantly expanding thanks to the reckless whims of Cooper's DiMaso—con/FBI sting are managed, we shift our attention to the quick, frantic moments that Russell gives us with the characters. One of my favorites occurs in a scene where Bale and Lawrence argue over who was more irresponsible after their kitchen nearly set on fire from someone putting tin foil in the “science oven” (read: microwave).
This is the kind of movie that needs no more reason for existence than the sheer joy you get watching it—eventually the sloppy structure and meandering plot become part of its charm, and we're happy just to see what the characters will manage to get themselves into next. In a weird way, it reminded me of what I think a lot of people hoped the Coen's Burn After Reading would end up being, but the frenetic energy here is all Russell's. For a director I wasn't particularly fond of for the first stretch of his career, he's delivered a trio of really solid films starting with 2010's The Fighter, and I couldn't be more excited at this point to see what he's going to do next.
Directed by David O. Russell.
Screenplay written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell.
Starring Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner.