‘American Hustle:’ Curl Me Crazy

David O. Russell gets a lot of things right. He wouldn’t be a perennial Oscar contender if he didn’t. The thing he gets the most right in American Hustle is hair. The thing he gets the second most right is Amy Adams. But Russell doesn’t ever quite get it all to come together, and this film feels inconsistent tonally in the same way that Silver Linings Playbook is and so full of scenes upon scenes that don’t do enough for each other, don’t contribute to the plot in a way that leads us smoothly to an end. Instead of a cohesive piece of filmmaking, American Hustle feels like a heck of an acting showcase, and a top-notch display of costume and make-up design, a collection of fine moments, but not a Best Picture.

American Hustle starts with the assertion, over a black screen, that, “Some of this actually happened.” The film is loosely based on the story of a federal investigation that occurred in the 1970’s in New York. The F.B.I. enlisted a con man to bust public officials for accepting bribes. In Russell’s film, we are introduced to a small-ish time con man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his former stripper girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who spend their lives in hot tubs drinking and in rented office spaces stealing money from people, until they get caught by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a fed with the curliest locks you ever did see. Cooper is frenetic and phenomenal as DiMaso, a federal agent who wants the bust so incredibly badly. He tries so hard. He tries harder than any other character in any movie ever (as physically evidenced by the absurd effort he puts into curling his hair) and wants success more than anything and it’s painful and desperate and funny.

DiMaso cuts Irving and Sydney (who dons an English accent and goes by “Edith”) a deal and has them orchestrate an elaborate plan involving a Sheik and a lot of money and Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the beloved mayor of Camden, an incredibly coiffed public official who wants nothing more than to build up Atlantic City and create jobs for his people. Renner plays gullible at its most Jersey-family-man-ish. The con is complicated, and on top of that, several people that shouldn’t end up getting too involved, people like a terrifying mob boss played by Robert DeNiro and Irving’s inflammatory hot mess of a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

The conflict comes from incendiary interpersonal betrayals among Irving, Sydney, Richie, Carmine, and Rosalyn. The comedy should have come from the fact that these relationships are based in the clouds, in an outrageous con, a place already so high above the ground, so outlandish and dramatic that the only way for the characters to behave is in an exceptionally heightened manner. However, despite a few professionally constructed comedic moments, the main characters remain disappointingly sincere and dramatic. The film is loud and over-the-top and fierce and fun until characters’ emotions takes over, and then that bright spark of true comedy, a historically dangerous thing in films trying to climb to the top of the gold statue, is abandoned. Russell either couldn’t figure out how to maintain comedic momentum and emotional depth, or he purposefully subdued it to keep the film a firm candidate during awards season. Either way, it makes the film tonally inconsistent.

The acting is great. This is the absolute best that Amy Adams has ever been. Jennifer Lawrence is the one that comes closest to reaching that consistent, comedic high and is frighteningly good as the boozy Rosalyn. Bale is intriguing because Irving’s fatal flaw, for all his criminal and extra-martial affairs, is the fact that he’s a pretty nice person. His friendship with Carmine and his love for his stepson point to a genuine heart underneath it all, which is very nearly the opposite of the characters Bale usually inhabits.

Now, to the hair. Irving’s comb-over is detailed and beautifully awful and clearly lovingly constructed. Richie’s curls are taut and precise and furious. Rosalyn’s up-do is a big ol’ floppy nest to house all her crazy, and Sydney’s red locks are as full of bouncy conviction as she is herself. The hair in American Hustle is incredible, larger-than-life, and constantly, unapologetically hilarious. The rest of the film could have taken a hint.

Grade: B

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10 years ago

How dare you! You forgot to mention Adams and Lawrence’s breasts and their kissing. Pure awesomeness

Review Fail! Ha.