There's definitely a pulse to American Hustle, but a heartbeat might be another matter. Epically cool and boiling over with the manic energy that has become the hallmark of director David O. Russell, the follow-up to Silver Linings Playbook lacks an organic pull to any of its characters, leaving one of the year's most anticipated films a little wanting.
That reads worse than it is, really, because American Hustle is a total blast from the jump. The problem is the unavoidable artificiality of it all. The film opens with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) delicately executing one of the great 1970s comb-overs. The scene lasts a couple of minutes, the first float in a parade of exaggerated hair and clothing from that era. But whether it's the comb-over or the FBI agent in the home perm (Bradley Cooper), the affectations are just ... off. They make it impossible to separate actor from character. "Oh, look at what they did to poor Jeremy Renner," you'll say. And say again.
It's disconcerting only because the actors can disappear in roles—particularly Bale and Amy Adams—but these are more like well-crafted caricatures. The effect is almost like watching them recreate the disco era in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
But still: a hell of a lot of fun. It's a loose fictionalization of Abscam, the historic FBI sting that took down several congressmen on corruption and bribery charges. The names have been changed to protect the guilty, and though it's not mentioned by name, Abscam is kind of window dressing here. It's a convenience of setting this film in the late '70s, but the actual crimes could have been anything.
Rosenfeld is a small-time con man who, with his lover/associate (Adams), charms Richie DiMaso (Cooper) out of a few thousand bucks. Or so they think. The secret agent man in the bad perm is a career climber, and this case could be his big break. To help Rosenfeld avoid being pinched for his crimes, DiMaso offers him a chance to root out crooked politicians, including a local and beloved mayor (Renner).
Just when you think Rosenfeld's life couldn't be more complicated, he goes home to his looney tunes young wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence is as unhinged here as she was in her Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook turn a year ago, but she's a supporting player trying to chew up every scene she's in. She does, for what it's worth.
The film was recently among the most honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, receiving seven Golden Globe Award nominations. Tellingly, American Hustle showed up in the comedy categories; David O. Russell, if nothing else, is a chronicler of the human comedy. But it's actually the film's funnier moments that make it lose its punch, to the slight degree it does. It's almost as if you're supposed to laugh at the characters and situations because there's no way you could take any of it more seriously. Maybe that's what the hair is all about.
One category even the lightweight Golden Globes doesn't endorse is Best Soundtrack. This year, that would likely go to Susan Jacobs, the music supervisor on this film as well as Silver Linings, Little Miss Sunshine, the disco-drenched 54, and Robert Altman's love song to jazz, Kansas City. She has assembled a ton of classic rock tracks to punctuate the action, giving many scenes an indelible music video feel. Finding the right music for the right moment isn't as easy as you might think, but if there's one thing that's flawless here, it's the music.
As you might expect, everyone in this film is memorable. Sometimes, though, it's not the performance but the circumstance that sticks with you. ("Hey, that's Louis C.K. What's he doing in this?") But because Russell is such an electric filmmaker, it can't derail American Hustle for long. This is still a great movie, just one that's a little too far in on its own joke.