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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

American Hustle

Or: Cold-cuts and Comb-overs

The first image I saw of American Hustle is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a small time partitioner that most of american of professions, the con artist, arranging his comb-over. First impressions are important and as I sat testily through the two and a half hour special my mental image of the film shaped itself more and more into the shape of that hair piece. It’s certainly elaborate and painstakingly assembled, has great flare and identity but is puffed up on its own importance, and not really all that impressive.

It’s 1978 and Rosenfeld is in a bind. He and his partner, mistress and friend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), quiet New Jersey confidence artists preying mainly on the sleazy and the desperate have been strong armed by excitable FBI agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into a bigger game than either are comfortable with. Dimaso wants to use his captive’s skills to take down some of the major corrupt powers and politicians in New Jersey by way of progressive Mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner), a plot very similar to the real life ABSCAM debacle. Caught between the Feds and the Mob, with Sydney beginning to fall for the brusque charms of Dimaso and whilst contending with his own wacky (I’d use Tragic but I’m not that generous) wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Rosenfeld has to find a way to con them all and get to the other side with his skin, and his dignity, intact.

Doubtless some people, perhaps even you gentle reader, will find American Hustle to be an excellent way to pass an afternoon. They may chuckle over David O. Russell’s “realistic” dialog and wonder at the “duck and bob” cinematography of Linus Sandgren. For my own part, the former left a great deal to be desired in the fields of comprehension, character, and humor (though the “don’t put metal in the science-oven” conversation is undeniably hilarious) while the later, with its zoom ins, zoom outs and restless lurching made me less enthralled than seasick. I will consent however that Danny Elfman’s arrangements of popular Seventies pop songs are excellently orchestrated through the action and run a live wire through many an otherwise dull scene of sex or assault.

The performances however run a broader range from subpar to sublime. Cooper and Renner, partially bound by the limitations of the script (it goes in for amusing confusion and petty rage, never anything deep or revealing) are confined to being “shout-y” actors blundering their way about. It served Cooper well in Silverlingings Playbook but here hamfistedness and belligerence only undercut Dimaso’s power and his credibility. That may be what Russell wanted but he and Cooper could have worked out a less painful way to do it. Bale is as always an excellent cosmetic actor, very much of the eighteenth century style. He can make just the right posture, the right expression, the right gesture to make us believe he is what he portrays. Unluckily for him this is not the eighteenth century and we require a little more internal artifice. Bale has these fires in reserve but we don’t really see them until they are coaxed out by Adams or Lawrence.

Now we climb up from the sad shrubs and see the great trees that tower over them. Adams brings her usual welcome intensity, both to Sydney’s twinkle-eyed courting of danger, her tenderness (both real and feigned), and her smiling worry when all her plans spin out of her control. If Bale performance works its way in from the outside, Adam’s intentions and fabrications shine forth through her expressions with the power and the welcomeness of a light house. It shines all the brighter thanks to the elegant but shamefully flimsy get ups she keeps getting stuffed into. But even Adams is out done by Lawrence portrayal of Roselyn, “the Picaso of passive aggressive karate” (you see what I mean about the script?). It takes a really smart actress to play someone so dumb, a truly generous actress to make sympathetic someone so cruel, and a genuinely serious actress to make such a funny performance.

American Hustle might have been a mighty film, a gripping drama about bad people trying to scrape by, but muffled by the realism of its script, the elaborateness of its shooting and imbalanced acting prowess it settles down into a tangled comb-over, intricate but ultimately ridiculous. The image I will take away from the film is Prosser and Rosenfeldt embarrassing each other in the middle of a dry cleaner while being walloped by a a circulation of plastic suit covers. That’s the film, a lot of passion and potential smothered under a lot of inventive but hard to swallow ideas.

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