Review: American Hustle Makes Corruption Seem Sweet

Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale in American Hustle Photograph by Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection

American Hustle opens in movie theaters across the country today with an extended scene of a very bald Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) doing his “hair”—painstakingly combining an elaborate comb-over with hairspray, glue, and a toupee to create the illusion of having a full head. He looks ridiculous, but there’s something charmingly aspirational about the effort. Much has been said about the hairdos and garish Seventies outfits in David O. Russell’s delirious new film, but all those comb-overs and curls and polyester suits and shiny dresses mean something to these characters. They wear their style the way they wear their duplicity, with a belief that it’ll make their lives better.

American Hustle is a sweet movie about corruption. It’s set during a time when the glitz and glamour of pop culture was belied by America’s faltering economy, with a combination of high unemployment, high inflation, and absurdly high interest rates. That has opened the door for hustlers like Rosenfeld, who describes a con as “the art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and dreams on.” Along the way, he hooks up with the beautiful, melancholy stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Their romance is founded on a fantasy of the good life: When they first get together, Irving shows Sydney the back room of his dry cleaners, where he keeps the expensive suits and dresses customers have abandoned over the years. Her eyes wide open, Sydney tries on the borrowed clothes the way she might try on a borrowed life, luxuriating in how they feel.

Together, Irving and Sydney sell fake art, give out bad loans, and run Ponzi schemes. One day, however, an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), corners them, and to keep out of prison, Irving and Sydney work with the feds to bring down some local politicians and businessmen. The idea: Convince Camden (N.J.) Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) that an Arab sheikh is willing to invest millions of dollars to help rebuild a decaying Atlantic City, and watch the bribes and sleaze roll in. The small-time operation becomes a feeding frenzy, entangling members of Congress and ruthless mobsters alike.

The so-called Abscam scandal was a real event: Six representatives and one senator, among others, were convicted of bribery and corruption, and the FBI did collaborate with a con artist to bring them down. But director Russell has taken plenty of liberties here, changing characters’ names, back stories, and motivations. He’s not interested so much in the what, where, and when of the case as he is in the why. What if those involved in this elaborately corrupt scheme weren’t duplicitous criminals, he asks us, but broken people looking for better lives?

Mayor Polito is just a guy trying to rebuild a decaying American town, hopeful that all this shady investment will mean jobs for his downtrodden constituents. Irving is married to the long-suffering loose cannon Rosalyn (a hilarious Jennifer Lawrence) but envisions romantic bliss with Sydney. Sydney hints at a suicidal past, and wants the good life. Rosalyn herself, for all her sarcastic bluster, imagines that her marriage with Irving is a happy one. Meanwhile, Richie talks excitedly—to his mom, with whom he lives—about how this case will make him a big shot. Sure enough, he falls in love with Sydney and her fake, “classy” British accent.

All these characters are, essentially, overgrown and excitable children. And in David O. Russell’s world, this is not a belittling fact. (He is, after all, the man who made the bipolar romantic dance comedy Silver Linings Playbook.) His love for the corrupt kids breathes from every pore of this film. Even in an offhand exchange about fragrances: At one point, Rosalyn describes her perfume, which her husband can’t stop coming back for, as “like flowers, but with garbage.” She adds: “Historically, the best perfumes in the world are all laced with something nasty.” She might as well be talking about people.

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