In David O. Russell’s warm-hearted and hilarious film, con-artists Sydney and Irving are lovers entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent and forced to participate in a far-reaching sting. The action goes down in a lurid 1970s New Jersey teeming with sexual tension and Serious Hair.
In American Hustle’s opening scene, the inimitable Russell presents us with a strangely enthralling spectacle: conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale in his latest physical transformation) preparing his comb-over in a suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel. When Irving’s partner-in-crime and lover Sydney later describes said comb-over as ‘elaborate’, she kindly understates the case: this is surely the mother of all comb-overs.
A partially bald, paunchy man in a velvet suit, Irving sports unruly back-combed rat-tails protruding from his dome in every direction to form an unsightly Medusa’s garland. To address this unfortunate reality, he applies what appears to be a merkin to his exposed pate. This being The Seventies in all its hideous glory, it could perhaps be a piece cut from an afro wig. Still, it is short and curly, so draw your own conclusions. Through a fascinating process involving glue and persistence, he achieves the seemingly impossible, ultimately resolving the hair situation admirably, even heroically.
Comedic value aside, I have the nagging feeling a key to the film is hidden amongst the characters’ uniformly over-prepared locks. Suffice to say this movie raises the question of whether it is possible for hair to be epic, and it is nothing short of a travesty that American Hustle wasn’t nominated for best makeup and hairstyling at this year’s Academy Awards. Throughout the film, Russell shows us characters constructing their identities with their hair, and all the inherent vulnerability this entails.
The opening sequence mercilessly exposes our romantic lead to the point where he becomes an object of ridicule. Did I say romantic lead? American Hustle is an exuberant, entertaining, wickedly funny con movie on the surface, but Russell has given us love story on the sly: a deeply romantic film and humane film in the guise of a caper.
As the scene continues, we introduce the Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, outstanding, in a film where the performances are excellent across the board) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) completing the film’s first love-triangle. The unlikely threesome are getting ready for a high-stakes meeting at the Plaza Hotel. Blood is running high. Tempers flare. Comb-overs are dislodged. Violence is a heartbeat away. The other cheek is turned in another easily overlooked heroic act. And we go back, back, back to the beginning.
The beginning, is… when just a whippersnapper, Irving started smashing windows around town to drum up business for his father, an honest window salesman. ‘From the ground up’ he became a different kind of man from his father. A sleazebag, or an unlikely hero? A dishonest man willing to exploit people to get ahead? Indeed. A man taking control of his own destiny? Certainly. A corrupt man helping the people he cares about in the most pragmatic way? Undoubtedly. In particular, Irving is a man who is constantly underestimated and frequently reduced to a caricature by people who aren’t really paying attention.
The beginning, is… when Sydney and Irving meet at a suburban party in New Jersey… Bale lets it all hang out here. He is an overweight, sweaty, badly dressed, balding man. Yet as Sydney says, she fell for him because he was entirely himself, and entirely comfortable with himself. Something Sydney believes she is not, though her actions show her otherwise.
She likes Irving and accepts him as he is. They bond over Duke Ellington. Later, he takes her to his dry cleaners, where she tries on clothing and with them identities (a recurring theme in Russell’s work), for she feels she can be so much more than what she is. They share a tender moment leading to a soulful kiss as clothing swirls around them on a seemingly infinite rack. What we have is the beginning of an extraordinary romance. A story of survival, and kindred spirits.
As with the comb-over, necessity is the mother of invention. Our lovers are deeply grounded in their acceptance of reality, and their relationship is real and adult. Accepting Irving as he is means Sydney must accept Irving as a married man. Accepting Irving as a con artist means she must reinvent herself as the charming and aristocratic Lady Edith. She talks about choices when you come from a place with limited options. We see her choice was to work on stage in a strip club. Sometimes, she tells us, it felt sexy, “There’s a boldness to it.” And bold is sexy, as the movie goes on to show. Fashion notwithstanding, we have at least three characters with big hearts, and big cojones to match.
Irving and Sydney choose to steal from desperate people. The film doesn’t address the moral questions this raises except Sydney’s suggestion that these are not good people and consequently don’t have good karma. Karma must be immediate for Irving, who rips off acquaintances in his own neighborhood. But even closer to home, he is an honest man, with a generous heart which has seen him adopt the son of former single mother and wife Rosalyn.
Rosalyn is a woman entirely different from Sydney – divorced from reality, ungenerous – but like agent DiMaso, though she may not have a big heart, she is endowed with balls of steel. This is a woman who uses her child as leverage over Irving, whom she feels infinitely superior to. This despite the fact he is constantly putting himself on the line to provide for their family, whereas Rosalyn contributes next to nothing, and is so careless she is always one step away from burning the house down.
Rosalyn believes she is smarter than she is, and acts in the most harmful way, feeling – sometimes understandably – that she has the moral right. A deeply toxic woman, yet warm, appealing, sexy, and charming, as played in an inspired performance by Jenifer Lawrence. She makes Rosalyn a great comedic character, vivid and vital and clumsy. Whether obsessing about the smell of nail lacquer topcoats, or seething in an encounter with Sydney, she is never less than compelling. Eventually, there is redemption and a fresh start for Rosalyn.
But, back once more to the beginning, which is… when Sydney and Irving are entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent, and he gives them a choice. A very limited choice, as the other option is jail, but a choice nonetheless. Enter stage left: the fake sheik. Agent Di Maso recruits the couple to work undercover in a sting operation that eventually draws in all sorts of powerful players, from prominent politicians to mobsters, and most notably another flawed hero, a ‘corrupt’ mayor fighting passionately for his constituency in the most pragmatic way. Mayor Carmen Polito eventually becomes the moral center of the movie, and Irving’s chickens come home to roost when he must face up to his betrayal of this kindred spirit.
When they first meet, Sydney feels an initial attraction to DiMaso, but we are left guessing as to her true motivations as the film progresses. I think Sydney gives us enough information. While he manages to use extreme stress techniques to drive something of a wedge between Sydney and Irving, hell and high water are surely nothing new to her. Sydney is comfortable using her sex appeal to get what she wants – it’s a simple trap for suckers, and deeply pragmatic Sydney is never above using it. In fact, Sydney’s uniquely seductive wardrobe forms a hilarious running joke throughout American Hustle.
It is interesting to note the original title was ‘American Bullshit’. That would never do justice to the sincerity of the characters, liars one and all, in this unique and entertaining film. More than just a con, Hustle was the dance of 1970s America, the strut of Saturday Night Fever, the hot move of a generation of people trying to become something bigger. But despite all the brazen hustle and bustle, and the nod and a wink at Scorcese, it is authenticity which wins through.