American Hustleopens with an extended scene of con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) patiently gluing a toupee onto his bald scalp and then arranging it with the rest of his floppy hair in a comb-over for the ages. The scene is meaningful for two reasons: It’s one of the last times anyone in director David O. Russell’s sometimes madcap, sometimes melancholy satire will exhibit anything resembling patience, and it’s also symbolic of the way that nearly every character in the film hides their true selves, often barely holding their constructed identities together.American Hustle is a heavily fictionalized (“Some of these things actually happened”) account of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, which ensnared a U.S. senator, six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a New Jersey state senator and others in a scheme involving a fake Middle Eastern sheikh, government bribes and high-level corruption. The film’s early scenes follow Irving – who’s deceptively smart under that thing on his head, but also oddly genial about the low-level scams he pulls involving fraudulent loans and phony art – as he meets the apparent love of his life and immediate partner in grift, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who catches the marks with a fetching fake British accent and a series of severely plummeting necklines.Irving’s biggest problem at this point is that he also has a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who doles out pleasure and pain in equal doses, the latter largely through her unpredictable way with words and frequent accidental attempts to burn down their house. But all that recedes into the background (for a while) when Irving and Sydney are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, his tight curls almost as fabulous as Bale’s hairpiece), who offers them immunity if they help him land a few bigger fish.Those fish start out as other con men, but the trail soon leads our unlikely trio into a larger, more dangerous world of sleaze and shady activities involving state and federal government officials, local New Jersey powerbrokers and the mafia (embodied like no one else can by a cameo star). DiMaso sees the operation as his path to Bureau glory; Sydney and Rosalyn, who ends up getting unwittingly involved as well, see it as a way out of their dead-end lives; and Irving sees it at first as a simple means to get back to the life he enjoyed, but is soon the only one who realizes that things are spinning out of control.Almost every character in American Hustle is in over their heads, which makes the outlandish ‘70s hairstyles they all employ throughout so rich in symbolism. The culture then was in the early stages of “me, me, me” and “more, more, more” (which we’re seeing the even uglier ramifications of nowadays), and everything from Sydney’s sex-bomb outfits to Richie’s stratospheric demands and near-psychotic behavior (he beats his own boss with a phone at one point) are indicative of the almost desperate grasp of materialism that dominated the era. And no one, save except perhaps for Irv as a scam artist turned sorta-hero, ever stops to reflect on what they’re doing.By rewriting Eric Warren Singer’s script to replace the real-life figures with fictional versions – also an apt commentary on the characters’ constant reinvention of themselves – Russell simultaneously liberates the material while diluting it. Above all, American Hustle is fun. Every single actor has a blast; the women look sensational, and the costumes and period details are a riot. But by taking it out of the real world, so to speak, Russell lessens the power of what ultimately happened as a result of Abscam: The further disillusionment with our own government just a few years after Watergate and the tragedy of ruined lives (the latter touched upon by Jeremy Renner’s well-intentioned but hapless mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito).
That’s the biggest difference between American Hustleand, say,Goodfellas, a film which Russell clearly aspires to have his movie sit alongside. Not everything is played for laughs in Scorsese’s classic—certainly not its abrupt, still shocking explosions of violence and death. But just about everything in American Hustleis. That doesn’t necessarily make it a lesser film, but leaves a slight air of uncertainty over it. Does the director have something to say about all this or is he just having fun with a grand bunch of brilliantly realized characters? You may not come out of American Hustle with the same feeling of awe that you had walking out of Goodfellasor even Boogie Nights, because it doesn’t plumb quite the same emotional depths, and because we’ve seen those films already make a lot of the same moves that Russell makes here (including a non-stop, exhilarating stream of period pop music cues).But even with that, American Hustle is sharply written, endlessly energetic, flawlessly edited, and perfectly acted, with Bale wringing much more humanity out of Irving than you might expect, Adams (the real gem here despite more showy turns from her co-stars) gliding from mysterious and seductive to desperate and frightened, and Lawrence creating suspense every time she opens her mouth to utter some new nonsense. Russell commands the whole thing with confidence and marvelous timing, even if he keeps a slight distance. Perhaps the biggest American hustle of all is that we never really know who people are or what their true intentions might be…and that speaks as much to the subjects of this nearly great filmas it does to the filmmaker himself.Den Of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 starsLike us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!