David O. Russell seems to be on a character study schedule – one year, it’s down and out brothers in The Fighter; the next, it’s a couple who find solace in the other’s crazy, in Silver Linings Playbook; and this year, it’s hustlers, housewives and corrupt government men in American Hustle. Russell is famously concerned with characters over plot. In fact, despite its apparently tightly written script, many moments in Hustle were improvised, which concerned one of its stars, Christian Bale – to which Russell responded that “[he] hates plots.” This piece of trivia alone will divide the movie’s viewers, and so far, it HAS been pretty divisive. A review from Ben, my co-editor, is forthcoming, and while I enjoyed the film, he actually almost walked out. So we’ll get to that in a few days.
Since the plot is decidedly thin, I’m not really sure what exactly to cover: Irving Rosenfeld (a practically unrecognizable Christian Bale) is our “protagonist,” a con man who is happy to consider taking $5000 from the unsuspecting and promise he’ll turn it into $50,000, if he even accepts them as a client. He’s got a volatile, irresponsible wife (the explosive Jennifer Lawrence) waiting at home in Long Island, but his real love lies in the city, in his mistress and “business” partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, more mature and layered than ever), who throws on a British accent and pretends to be Lady Edith Greensley, for the sake of their faux investments. It’s not long before they’re cornered by a young FBI agent desperate to prove himself, Richie DiMaso (a fully permed, dynamic Bradley Cooper), and the three of them conspire to bring down several corrupt government officials, starting with well-loved family man, Carmine Polito (a greasy, slick Jeremy Renner). It’s based on the actual ABSCAM scandal, wherein con artists and the FBI worked together with a fake sheik to catch the corrupt officials in their bribery.
Instead, I’ll talk about the performances, which I think carry the movie strongly enough that the malnourished plot didn’t really bother me (though Ben will be weighing in with his counterpoint to that very soon). I promise I’m not biased, but for me, the standout once again was Lawrence, as Bale’s spitfire wife. Her part is small but crucial – in a moment of fury at her philandering husband, she almost ruins the entire plan, letting it slip to her lover (corrupt himself) that Irving keeps getting calls from “the IRA.” Lawrence is almost always on, but in this film, she’s a tour de force that spins completely out of control. She’s so precise, she barely blinks. Adams, as the only other female figure, is no slouch either, bringing a steely-eyed glint that I never thought I’d see in those wide, Disney Princess eyes of hers. Clad in sparkly, deep V dresses, she’s the powerhouse behind Irving’s operation, even though her British accent was pretty iffy – although, if you want to take that as a character choice wherein Sydney just sucks at accents, I can most definitely work with that. The scene between Lawrence and Adams, pictured above, was highly charged and brilliantly played out, ending with Lawrence laying one on Adams, leaving her mark with bright red lipstick. Bale and Adams also bring great chemistry to the table – one of the early scenes in their relationship, where he seduces her with his dry cleaning store’s lost and found room, feels just as magical to us as it does to the impressionable Sydney. Bale is a delight, like he almost always is. His accents are dead-on balls accurate, his combover and belly are totally gross, and he makes his sleazy character sympathetic. The other standout, for me, is Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso. He starts out married to his job, determined to make a name for himself, but ends up getting seduced (and conned) by Irving and Sydney – well, especially Sydney, who seduces him slowly but surely. The scenes where he rolls into his superior’s (played by Louis C.K., in a fun little cameo) office in sunglasses, chainsmoking, demanding private jets and luxury hotel rooms, are some of the movie’s best and funniest – in fact, his entire arc with C.K. is rollicking fun. Silver Linings was the movie where Cooper proved he could act, but I think his performance in this movie is even stronger. Renner is fine. His character is pretty straightforward for a Russell creation, so he doesn’t really have as much to chew on as everyone else. An expected DeNiro cameo rounds out the big names, and DeNiro is, at this point in his career, just playing Robert DeNiro.
The costumes and sets help to bring depth and fullness to the film, and they’re a spectacle to behold. Adams gets the best costumes by far, with big furs, giant hats and sunglasses, and sparkly disco dresses slashed to her navel. Lawrence, with her (now gone!) glorious mane piled on top of her head, bats eyes covered in lurid blue eyeshadow and favors tight, cleavage-baring numbers. It was apparently Bradley Cooper’s idea to give his character a totally ridiculous perm (and spend a few scenes actually in curlers), and it’s hilarious and fitting. Bale’s elaborate combover is a whole production in and of itself, and Renner’s hair is sky-high and immovable. The film is a period piece, and the set decoration is specific down to the minutest details – a perfect example is the 70’s tacky chic of the Sherman Suite at the Plaza, where the scam itself takes place.
Hustle is by no means a perfect movie – though I can tell you some of the lines I liked the best, or how much I loved Cooper’s curlers, I can’t REALLY tell you what happened. But I’m okay with that. The movie was created as pure entertainment and as a showcase for its actors, and in that, it succeeded. With quick-witted, signature Russell dialogue and tight direction by the same, Hustle succeeds as pure fun.