If you go…
“American Hustle,” rated R
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Running time: 138 minutes
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.
Last year in “Argo,” we saw a movie about the Central Intelligence Agency going through unusual channels to pull off a vital mission several decades ago. Now, we see a similar kind of story in the same time period in “American Hustle,” albeit with a different government body where apparently “intelligence” is not a prerequisite for being hired.
In 1978, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is making a killing in his many business ventures. Keeping a face of legitimacy through his chain of dry cleaners, his real money comes from dealing fake art and an ongoing investment scam, which he has managed to grow with the help of his partner and paramour, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).
The two have been living the high life with no one being any the wiser, except perhaps Irving’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence), but as long as he keeps his work and home life separate, there need never be a problem. Nevertheless, their system hits a snag when the FBI gets involved, and Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts them for fraud.
The only way out for the duo is to assist Richie as he casts his net to catch much bigger fish, like crooked politicians. Among the G-Man’s targets is Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), whose desire to revive the struggling economy of his state has him talking to all the wrong people.
Irving and Sydney are glad to participate in anything that gets them out of trouble, but they find their own complications when Irving begins to become too friendly with their quarry and Sydney’s flirtations with Richie start to get a little too real.
Whether losing a dangerous amount of weight for a role or rebuilding sinew to play Batman, Bale’s ever-changing physique is as much an actor as he is with Irving’s paunchy torso and hunched shoulders a far cry from anything the man has done before. The real Irving — 1970s con man Melvin Weinberg — was once slated to be played by John Belushi, and though Bale doesn’t quite convince he’s as much of a slob, he does convey that kind of explosiveness and endless confidence of someone who really doesn’t have any good reason to be cocky other than an ego that’s as inflated as his gut.
Adams’ Sydney — based on Evelyn Knight — admits that her lover is kind of a pig, but as someone who also believes she’s the smartest person in the room, it’s no wonder they click. She’s the one who plays all the angles in the relationship, slipping in and out of a British accent as the invented persona Lady Edith Greensly whenever it suits her, namely seducing the man who holds their fate in his hands.
Cooper is hilarious as the agent who is certain he’s about to be the next big star of the FBI, even though his operations are wholly dependent on the machinations of those who actually know what they’re doing. On the other side of it, Renner’s Carmine — based on one-time New Jersey golden boy Angelo Errichetti — garners sympathy as an unsuspecting sheep with good intentions about to be chewed up and spit out by a pack of wolves.
And then there’s Lawrence as Irving’s insufferable spouse, Rosalyn, a neglected harpy who knows her marriage began out of pity and constantly threatens to expose her husband for the liar she knows him to be. Her knack for causing household appliances to go up in flames shows she doesn’t mind causing a fuss if she feels slighted, but the forcefulness of how she talks and acts demonstrates she’s much more than just a minor nuisance.
Rosalyn’s babble about her favorite nail polish, Sydney’s love of haute couture and the men of the tale putting a preposterous amount of work into their hair reveals how many layers there are to a group of people who are all about vanity. Renner’s pompadour and Cooper’s awful home perm are one thing, yet it’s seeing Bale engineer an intricate, multi-step comb-over that bares the truth of all this fakery — an aspect that director and co-writer David O. Russell gleefully exploits in his parable about the real-life doings of the folks involved in Abscam in the era when no shade of brown was considered unfashionable and anyone who liked disco wasn’t doing so ironically.
If you think there’s a real moral involved here, you may as well be Richie’s supervisor (Louis C.K.) attempting to impart wisdom to his employee with an anecdote about ice-fishing — a story of timing and patience that means nothing to someone who thinks he’s got it all figured out. Russell’s objective of emphasizing the abhorrent actions and attitudes of these people works well, matching the kind of farcical humor in movies like “The Informant!” and “Burn After Reading.”
In fact, this strategy works all too well.
Yes, we laugh at them, but Russell also wants us to consider them real people with vulnerabilities and dreams, something he’s attempted to do in his last couple movies, and while we could connect with the characters of “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” the personalities here are too exaggerated to be completely convincing.
The disclaimer for “American Hustle” lets us know that it’s by no means the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Therefore it should be no surprise that the level of gravitas doesn’t quite feel authentic even though the cast does all it can.
Still, never let it be said that the facts should get in the way of a good story.
Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.