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Edelstein: David O. Russell Goes Balls-Out in American Hustle

Director David O. Russell goes balls-out in his Abscam comedy American Hustle. He must have known on some level that the movie’s central philosophical motif — that most of us con one another, reinventing ourselves to be what we’re not — is glib and only tangentially related to the elaborate late-seventies FBI sting that led to bribery convictions against prominent politicians. So Russell hustles like he’s never hustled in his life. He out-Scorseses Scorsese: whip pans, whooshes, slo-mo, tacky (but great) seventies chart toppers, actors wound up and let loose. His four leads have worked with him before to spectacular effect: Christian Bale and Amy Adams in The Fighter, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. They trust him enough to put everything they have into every shot, and in scene after scene they hit the motherlode. The movie is a slot machine that never stops spitting quarters.

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a masterly con artist who steals from men so desperate for bank loans they’ll give him $5,000 to go through back channels. But Irving has no channels, back or front. He pockets the money, stalls for months, and finally says, “Sorry, they didn’t approve the loan.” Irving lays out his schemes in voice-over, much like the protagonist of Goodfellas. But Russell can’t hold himself to one narrator, one plot stream; he’s always zigzagging off. Adams is Sydney, the woman Irving spies at a Long Island pool party. He recognizes her hunger and it turns him on like crazy. They have a lyrical love scene in one of his dry-cleaning stores (his side business): He gives her unclaimed dresses and coats, and they throw themselves on each other while clothes in plastic spin around them. So romantic! Together, they’ll hustle the world.

A title at the start of American Hustle claims that some of it “is actually true,” though a glance at the record shows not much. Irving is based on Melvin Weinberg, who bought his freedom from prison by setting up fellow crooks — and led the FBI by happy accident to the mayor of Camden, assorted congressmen, one U.S. senator, and mobsters eager to raise capital for Atlantic City casinos. The sting was indeed built around a bogus sheik. But Russell turns Abscam into a sardonic morality play with victims that include the urban poor.

The real Camden mayor, Angelo Errichetti, was a bridge to innumerable greed heads and had bottomless pockets — in contrast to the movie’s Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a grown-up Boy Scout in an Elvis pompadour who talks of using the cash from the phony sheik to grow the city’s tax base and put people back to work. So Irving becomes the Judas figure who betrays a good man, is stricken by what he has done, and labors in the climax to make amends. This makes for a fine Hollywood ending, but when you come down from the movie’s high, you might wonder what Russell is saying. That much of the money passed to politicians in suitcases goes to the poor? That graft can help cities get back on their feet?

Maybe that is what he’s saying. Russell’s affections are with small-time con men, like Irving and the army heroes in his Three Kings, who are in the middle of a heist when they decide to risk their lives for Kurdish civilians abandoned by the U.S. In Russell’s world, it’s the small-time crooks who see what’s really going on — as opposed to government suits or FBI agents who don’t care about the little guy.

What Russell really cares about is actors, few of whom perform in their real hair. Bale’s Irving has arguably the most outlandish comb-over in cinema history. It’s multifaceted, composed of not just strands but wayward puffs, meticulously arranged and held in place by spirit gum and crowned with an ugly rug. A burgundy velvet three-piece suit and an ascot stuffed down his shirt completes the hideous effect. Bale pulls his neck into his shoulders, gesticulates broadly, and talks in an unconvincing New Yawk accent — but then Bale is rarely convincing and generally wonderful anyway. Like Russell, he does nothing halfway. It’s a powerful moment when Irving and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) get into a fierce, testosterone-fueled spitting match and Richie knocks Irving’s hair out of place: the lowest of low blows, especially since Richie is later seen with a head full of curlers and knows the importance of styling. He’s in love with Sydney, but he’s too much of a thin-skinned insecure blowhard to stay true. He’s easy to root against, especially when he picks on Louis CK as his scowling, uptight superior. We can’t help being loyal to Louie.

Russell worships the women. He puts Adams in dresses with necklines that plunge to her navel and opens many scenes with the camera traveling up her slender gams. She’s pretty as hell, but Adams’s ingénue looks can’t hide the steel. Those blue eyes are like stilettos. The role of Sydney — who affects a British accent to play “Eve” (an homage to The Lady?) — is all over the place, but Adams holds it together by force of will. She meets her match, though, in Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s compulsive Long Island wife, Rosalyn, who turns the movie’s love triangle into a jagged rectangle. Who could have dreamed when Lawrence showed up as determined Ozarks teenager in Winter’s Bone that she had comic chops this spectacular? Under high, bleached hair, she detonates madcap line after madcap line. She warbles “Live and Let Die” while dusting the furniture and swinging her ringlets. She incinerates Sydney with a glare and plants a big kiss on her lips. Her Rosalyn charms gangsters and politicians so thoroughly that she nearly wrecks Abscam — and upends the film.

American Hustle doesn’t hold up to sober scrutiny, but I’m inclined to forgive Russell much. He’s at the top of my list of American directors. He doesn’t work neat; he cultivates a state of disequilibrium that liberates actors and captures the messy collision of self-interests at the heart of the American comedy — and tragedy. I can’t wait to see the mess he delivers next.