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'American Hustle' Is Scorsese Played for Laughs

Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures

American Hustle is like a Scorsese gangster film in the hands of Preston Sturges—and that’s a promising premise. Scorsese’s reiteration of the same characters, situations, and dialogue has been funnier than he’s ever grasped. Now, David O. Russell has used it as a forum for antic play, where half-wise guys lay exotic talk on each other. This means that when people in the movie are slammed in the head by 1978 vintage telephones (an acknowledged deadly weapon) there’s a speck or two of blood and a scar, but the flourish remains a gesture of pique and frustration rather than the blatant desire to splash us with pulp.

“Some of this really happened,” says an opening title, but no one sees any reason to be scrupulous. The film is loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ’70s and early ’80s in which … well, that’s a good point. What was it about? A number of elected officials went to jail for taking money, and later there was soul-searching as to whether the FBI’s sting operation hadn’t been as malicious as anything the perps had done. So this is 129 minutes of confidence tricks, cover-ups, and scamming, if you want to look at it that way, or it’s a very entertaining after-hours jam session for actors. There was a script by Eric Warren Singer, written some years ago, but never filmed—perhaps because the story was impossible to follow. Then Russell came along, did a new job on the script and initially came up with the title “American Bullshit,” which is superior and more honest but which probably alarmed the marketing department at Sony.

129 is 29 minutes too long, and the praise that is being heaped on the film may itself require FBI investigation—the film was voted best picture and best script by the New York Film Critics, and they awarded supporting actress to Jennifer Lawrence, who does a competent job but is outclassed in all respects by Amy Adams. Still, if one thinks back to the Scorsese model, it’s a pleasant change to see two significant female performances mixed in with the boys.

Adams plays someone called Sydney Prosser, who also happily masquerades as an English aristocrat. (Is this from Sturges’ The Lady Eve?) A shared taste for Duke Ellington has drawn her to Irving Rosenfeld, a con man in a class of his own, and a delicious opportunity for Christian Bale who is discovered with a drooping belly and a hair job that takes several minutes to assemble. But once he has his ’78 styling in place it is mussed by Richie DiMasso (Bradley Cooper), a supposed FBI man who enlists them both in his scam operation and then seduces Sydney for a while. Who is Jennifer Lawrence? She is Irving’s wife, or so it says in the synopsis. If the story isn’t exactly clear from my account, don’t expect the film to solve the problem.

But don’t let that get in the way of the fun. Bradley Cooper is manic again—his last outing with Russell was the bipolar guy in Silver Linings Playbook. He’s sly, nasty, steadily dishonest, curly-haired, and horribly dressed, and he has a running battle with another FBI man played by Louis C.K., which is stand-up and sit-down schtick. They could be edited, if not curtailed, but there are moments where Cooper seems to be improvising, especially in an imitation of the Louis C.K. role. Come to that, one could be forgiven for thinking that the entire movie is an opportunity for these actors to read an outline of script and take it from there.

The heart of the film is Bale and Adams. Bale has never looked worse, or as indifferent to that fate. Year by year, he becomes more relaxed and more versatile. His costume is worse than Cooper’s, but he is resigned to the nonsense of the situation and to the complications of the character’s romantic life. As for Adams (who was the boxer’s girlfriend in The Fighter), it’s as if Russell had suddenly looked at her and realized she’s a knockout. As well as going weak in most parts of her body at the sound of Ellington, Sydney seems like someone who has been steadily interrupted in the act of dressing. No one in the film remarks on it or even seems to notice, but several parts of her body are hanging out of her costume most of the time. She’s become a wicked comedienne, and someone over whom Preston Sturges might have gone wild.

For the rest, there is a jukebox medley of hits from the late ’70s—this is another Scorsese method—and the picture is full of droll supporting performances. Jeremy Renner, Jack Huston, and Alessandro Nivola all do well, and there is also a harshly underlit actor who resembles Robert De Niro, but a De Niro who has uncommon humor and seems to realize that the whole film is a parody of some of his classics. Does he also notice how, from time to time, Bale drops into a cool and casual impersonation of the younger De Niro?

I daresay a case could be made that governmental corruption in the late ’70s was as widespread as this FBI confusion. Thank God we have rid ourselves of those problems. Which is to say that Russell really has no interest in the subject of the film—bullshit, hustle, schtick, or corruption. That is the American way, and as the movie seems more like an acting class, so the conclusion emerges that dishonesty, large and small, is a natural consequence of our obsession with acting. Russell remains an uncertain figure. He has left his early sense of isolation behind (Spanking the Monkey; I Heart Huckabees), and he has been working hard to be a robust entertainer. He’s clearly there, but to give many awards to this loose, wandering, and often monotonous movie is pitching him out of his own league. You feel at the moment that prize committees can hardly function without Jennifer Lawrence at their party. I just hope that she hasn’t forgotten her own best performance, in Winter’s Bone.