How apropos that the con artist in David O. Russell’s new film has a sideline selling forgeries. American Hustle plays like an imitation of Scorsese. As with many knock-offs, the resemblance to the real thing can represent a technical achievement. The difference between the look-alikes the film’s principal character passes off and what Russell does here is that nobody’s fooled. Taken, maybe, but not fooled. This is no Marty party.
A fictionalized version of the late-’70s Abscam stings, American Hustle opens with a title card announcing, “Some of this actually happened.” Christian Bale stars as Irving Rosenfeld, a sleazebag from the Bronx who owns several dry-cleaning operations but supplements his income by fleecing collectors and running the weirdest loan-sharking business ever to test an audience’s gullibility.
Get this: We’re supposed to believe that Rosenfeld runs a thriving scam consisting entirely of charging desperate idiots $5000 for a loan of, say, $50,000 and then never giving anybody any money. For this weasel, it’s not a finder’s fee; it’s a finders-keepers fee. And we’re asked to believe that, for reasons Russell and screenwriting partner Eric Singer never explain, customers never complain. Something tells me this isn’t the part that “actually happened.”
Furthermore, we’re shown that business gets even better once Rosenfeld partners romantically and professionally with a sexy huckster named Sydney Prosser. She’s played by Amy Adams’ breasts. That’s only a slight exaggeration. Her necklines don’t plunge; they do a double gainer with reverse somersaults and a twist.
The Abscam McGuffin kicks in when one customer doesn’t so much complain as turn out to be an FBI agent. Bradley Cooper costars as Richie DiMaso, an ambitious agent with a plan and a perm. He tells Rosenfeld and Prosser he’ll let them off if they help him get government big shots taking money on tape. But, while the picture dutifully chronicles the legal trap laying — renting a Plaza suite, opening a multimillion-dollar account and selecting an agent to impersonate a sheik — that’s not where Russell’s heart is.
American Hustle is all about two things. First, loving Martin Scorsese movies so much you make one just because you can. Call it a rip-off or call it an homage, but let’s call it what it is: Goodfellas and Casino cut with Donnie Brasco’s bromance and Boogie Nights’ ’70s fetishism. From the voice-overs and criminal milieu to the supersonic zooms and pop-song cues, it’s the best Scorsese movie Scorsese never made.
For Christ’s sake, when these Jersey low-lifes conspire to grease officials to get casino licenses, Robert De Niro even shows up wearing his giant black Sam (Casino) Rothstein goggles. I can’t believe the sheik wasn’t played by Joe Pesci!
The filmmaker’s other obsession is the period and, I’m sorry, but someone really should’ve taken Russell aside before shooting began and reminded him the decade’s been done to death. Maybe Ron Burgundy could’ve broken the news.
From its opening scene — in which Bale constructs the world’s most complicated comb-over — to the inevitable disco-club sequence, the picture revels in the era’s appalling polyesterosity. And, for reasons I fail to grasp, reviewers have tended to mistake solid art direction for bravura storytelling. Many have praised its humor, too — though, with the exception of Rosenfeld’s unstable sexpot spouse (Jennifer Lawrence — surprise! — is terrific in the role), nobody’s terribly entertaining.
Everyone else’s performance is perfectly serviceable, but the director goes for style over substance in a major way. The result is an intermittently involving production that’s all over the map narratively and only sporadically accurate historically. The brouhaha over the movie is beyond me. Like just about everything we’re to believe its subject ever did, American Hustle is a bit of a con.
* Running time: 138 min.
* Rated: R