This propulsive and overstuffed movie tries to do far too much. It has more plot than it knows what to do with, and for a while near the end it becomes almost impossible to follow. American Hustle is a partly fictionalized account of the headshaking Abscam scandal, in which six members of Congress and one senator were caught on film taking bribes from an FBI agent posing as an Arab oil sheikh.
David O. Russell, who cowrote and directed, wants his movie to be a meditation on false identities, the central role of deception in everyday life, and the gray areas of American politics and finance. Alas, American Hustle is too confused and confusing to say anything especially memorable about all this.
Russell has made wonderful movies (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, The Fighter) and not-so-wonderful ones (I Heart Huckabees, Silver Linings Playbook), but one thing all his films have in common is that they are alive. They move. They jolt. He stirs actors to new heights. Caviling about a movie this vital is a little like looking a gift horse in the mouth. Also, it has such amazing hair.
The hair sits atop the heads of the movie’s pentagon of stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. The time is the late 1970s, the American movie’s new favorite historical period (owing to the fact that Hollywood’s powers-that-be grew up in the Me Decade and now want to go back and visit). Cooper does his own perm. Renner has a pompadour. Adams whips her long, ironed mane around as a form of raw sexuality. Lawrence has a messy mop designed to look like she never gets out of bed.
Bale is the hair champ. He has a combover; the film actually begins with a depiction of how the male-pattern baldness sufferers of the day would whip the long, dangling strands off the sides into a cotton-candy confection atop the pate, then augment with a glued-on wig.
He’s also the acting champ in a movie as engorged with dazzling turns as it is with storylines. In most of the films he’s made since his extraordinary turn as a 12-year-old POW in Empire of the Sun a quarter-century ago, Bale comes across as overly intense and cold. But Russell seems to have a special way with Bale; as was the case with his Oscar-winning work in The Fighter, Bale embodies the deep humanity in a character who might have come across as a ludicrous (and anti-Semitic) caricature.
Bale plays a classic New York hustler: the owner of a dry-cleaning business who dabbles in art forgeries. At a party, he encounters Adams, a classic self-reinventer who left a life of stripping in the Midwest and talked herself into a job as an editorial assistant at Cosmopolitan. She responds to his infectious sense of self, and he responds viscerally to the fact that her whole life is a con.
Together they make a fortune convincing desperate businessmen with bad credit to give them non-refundable fees to secure loans from abroad—loans they have no way of getting. Eventually they run afoul of Bradley Cooper, a clever and ambitious FBI agent who decides to learn how to run a confidence game from Bale in order to get bad guys. Almost by chance, they find themselves involved with politicians and mobsters just at the time that New Jersey has decided to turn Atlantic City into the Las Vegas of the East.
And here is where the movie gets especially interesting, though historically inaccurate: The key politician, played by Renner, turns out to be a good guy who only wants to do good for the struggling people of Camden. So desperate is Renner to get the job done for his constituents that Bale easily gulls him into believing he has an Arab sheikh at the ready to help bribe less honest pols.
Then the Mafia gets involved, there’s a fight inside the FBI, and there’s a betrayal or two. Bale is torn between Adams and his unpredictable wife—played by Lawrence in another prodigious performance that may win this 23-year-old her second Oscar in as many years. Adams is torn between Bale and Cooper, or is she? Unlike the hair, the plot strands become tangled, and we find ourselves in a mash-up of Goodfellas, The Sting, and Boogie Nights.
Though this is a movie set in the 1970s that wishes to be gritty and hard-edged like a movie of the 1970s, Russell has learned from becoming a populist master—The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook were both acclaimed and enormously profitable—that it’s better to try to leave an audience smiling than devastated. And so he contrives a sitcom ending as false as Bale’s hairpiece. (He did the same in Silver Linings.)
Still, American Hustle is full of beans, even if it’s occasionally full of something else as well.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.