A couple of Hollywood makeup artists and costume designers sat around late one night, drinking and smoking and suddenly the idea hits them. The late 70s! Disco, John Travolta, wide lapels, polyester, and big hair. Let’s pile all those things into a movie. And throw in a few Oscar winners just to insure big box office.
And so it came to pass that American Hustle â€” oh so aptly named, my fellow filmgoing suckers â€”was born. In which we salaciously observe that even with fake curls and bell bottoms, Bradley Cooper is sexier than Daniel Craig and Elvis put together. We learn that the ghost of Robert DiNiro (both living and legendary) is alive and well. We are force fed the attempts of costumers and media hypsters to coax charisma into the stubbornly bland Amy Adams. We learn all over again that Jennifer Lawrence OWNS the screen, that cameras lick her face and salivate at her every gleam, sparkle and bounce. And we acknowledge something we have always known: Welshman Christian Bale is arguably the finest male actor working today (with profuse apologies to Benedict Cumberbatch).
But is all of this trivia really enough to hang a film on?
Fans of director David – Silver Lining Playbook – Russell may think so. I do not.Â Russell channels his inner Martin Scorsese and gives us a redux of Mean Streets perfumed lightly with The Sting, Goodfellas, early Francis Coppola and a few outtakes from something starring John Goodman only there’s no John Goodman here. There is Jeremy Renner as Harvey Keitel in drag playing the ambitious mayor of Camden New Jersey. And there are some choice moments, to be sure, including the obligatory “this’ll save the film’s ass for sure” cameo by the original, bona fide, actual Robert DiNiro himself.
Where was the film most critics are having grand mal seizures over, I wondered in between handfuls of popcorn. When would this screenful of talent and energy turn into something fresh and unexpected? I might as well have asked myself when Edward Snowden would be dining at the White House.
The film lightly skims the late 70s Abscam scandalâ€”an FBI sting involving Jersey politicians, a few Congressmen and some Atlantic City mobstersâ€”and presents us with a small-time con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who dabbles in fraudulent loans and art forgery. Bale is carefully finessing his elaborate comb-over as the film begins. Everything about this guy is fake and sleazy. He’s got a dumb blond wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) stashed on Long Island, but falls for a fellow low-lifer Sydney (Amy Adams) who yearns for a better life no matter what it takes. They fall for each other and team up for some small-time con capers. Enter desperate FBI wannabe Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who first busts the couple, and then inlists them to help with a larger scam to entrap congressmen, etc. taking bribes and mixing it up with the mafia. Haven’t we seen this movie before?
Poor Jeremy Renner is valiant but ultimately looks embarrassed buried under a pompodour, a retro Rod Blagojevich with a sincere Jersey accent.
The film has its moments. Rosenfeld flirts with Sydney at a pool party attempting sexiness with a combination of tight dacron shorts, a bulging belly and a chestful of gold chains. Â Priceless. Maestro of new identities, Bale embeds himself so successfully in his characterâ€”always adjusting his glasses and fussing with his comb-overâ€”that we come to love this luckless loser despite his shyster inclinations. Alas, Bale’s diNiro gestures and accent deepen as the film wears on, eventually unmasking (pun intended) the film as a flat out rip-off of all things Scorsese.
There are no surprises here, except perhaps to be stunned by Bradley Cooper’s moves on the dance floor.
Once the alleged “big sting” is on, the film devolves into a series of profane, red-faced tantrums by Cooper’s agent DiMaso, and some camera foreplay on the face, neck and shoulders of the delicious Lawrence. If Russell were half the director the PR machine claims he is, he would have been able to provide Cooper with a bit more invention than simply yelling, and then yelling faster. Hysteria is not dramatic tension. Nor is it (unless you’re Lucille Ball) screwball comedy. Huge stretches of the film’s dialogue and action are obviously ad libbed and frankly not well enough to pump spontaneity into a predictable and obvious bid for box office attention.
Think of American Hustle as a cinema scam. And you, the audience, are the mark.