Rating:David O. Russell has made a career in finding the comedy even in the direst situations. Take the opening scene of his newest film, American Hustle. We see Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), fat and horribly balding and just out of bed, meticulously working his comb-over back into place. Using everything from a comb to glue, Irving works his remaining hair over his pate until he creates the illusion of a full head of hair. As Irving explains to another character later in the film when contemplating a counterfeit Rembrandt: Who’s the master? The painter or the forger? Who knew a come-over could stand in as a metaphor upon which an entire film is predicated?
In his last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell told the stories of underdog characters overcoming great odds to succeed. This time, he’s moved on to something different, introducing us to a bunch of low-life con artists and crooked federal agents who we hope don’t succeed. And while not as successful as those past two films, there is still plenty here worth recommending.
Set in the ‘70s, American Hustle is yet another recent film that dresses itself up in the plaids, beiges and browns of that era. Even its byzantine plot is reminiscent of the twisty thrillers that came out of Hollywood at the time. Rosenfeld is a nickel-and-dime con artist who hooks up with grifter Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to swindle people in a fake loan operation. Their little business catches the eye of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper who is having hair issues of his own), who uses the pair to bust big fish such as politicians and gangsters. But DiMaso suffers from the same greed as Irving and Sydney and it’s only a matter of time before he flies too close to the sun.
Despite its interesting characters, American Hustle takes its messy time to reach a shambling conclusion that doesn’t add up to much. None of the people we meet are particularly likable (including Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s self-serving wife), but Russell and screenwriter Eric Singer layer each character, fueling each desperate twist and neurotic tick with the squirming sensation to just get ahead and survive.
And that is where Russell finds his comedy – in the lengths these characters go to survive, even if it means fucking over friends and lovers. Irving may be a two-bit dipshit, but it’s DiMaso that comes off worst as he cons (and straight out threatens) his supervisors so he can pull off important busts and make a name for himself.
If anything, Russell has made a competent homage to a time when Hollywood put out daring, thought-provoking films that oftentimes leaned more heavily on style than substance. Somewhat based on a true story, Russell isn’t interested in re-telling a tale from the ‘70s in vivid truth such as, say, Zodiac. Instead, it feels like an interesting exercise, a chance for Russell and his cast to dress up and have fun now that none of them really have nothing left to prove.