I walked out of “American Hustle” trying to figure out what it most resembles, metaphorically. Is it a Frankenstein monster, made up of mismatched parts struggling to walk in conflicting directions? Or a celluloid Pinocchio, breaking an onscreen sweat because it’s trying so hard to feel real? Maybe it’s inevitable that a story about people faking their way through life — from one scam, one accent, one identity to the next — would also feel like it is frantically searching to be “authentic.”
The weird thing is, “Hustle” is kind of a mess and kind of an almost-masterpiece. Its flaws are inseparable from its strengths in the same way that facts and fiction are all mixed up in the movie itself. (An onscreen legend at the start cockily spells out: “Some of this actually happened.”) Ancestors of “Hustle” include Preston Sturges’ fabulous “The Lady Eve” (starring Barbara Stanwyck as a con artist posing as British nobility), “The Grifters” and “The Sting,” all filtered through a Martin Scorsese–lite sensibility and generously peppered with 1970s Top-40 ear-worms (“I Feel Love,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Horse with No Name”). It makes for a pungent, chaotic couple of hours at the multiplex, giving the America of its title a good bad name.
“Hustle” opens smack in the middle of the action in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, where longtime scam artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), his mistress and partner Sydney (Amy Adams) and their FBI handler Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) try to sting Camden, NJ, mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) with a satchel of bribe money. The mayor smells a rat and scarpers. And the next half of the movie rewinds, bringing us back to that same opening moment.
This start is confusing. Who the hell are these people? Adding to the disorientation, the script by Eric Singer and director David O. Russell casually drifts from one character’s voice-over to the next. The movie has a blurred, rolling point of view, which is dangerously close to no point of view. (The model here seems to be Scorsese’s nonpareil “GoodFellas,” whose roiling energy was funneled more coherently through the eyes and voice of a single mobster, Henry Hill.)
Things come together, though. Irving, see, is a career scammer. He specializes in selling stolen or forged art, or swindling guys in straits so desperate they’re willing to give him $5,000 on the promise of bigger loans (which never materialize). It’s a small, scuzzy operation that gets a boost when Irving meets Sydney, a stripper with aspirations who puts on the name “Lady Edith Greensleeve” and a “classy” British accent the mugs all fall for. It’s a good life, even if Sydney only gets half of Irving’s attention. He’s married to a passive-aggressive, agoraphobic Long Island babydoll named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who bends him to her will. “I was her mark,” the conman muses.
Further complicating things is FBI agent Richie (Cooper), who busts Irv and Syd, then forces them to help catch bigger fish. He wants the cons to net him bigger cons, preferably corrupt politicians. Meanwhile, Richie finds himself falling hard for Sydney — which is tricky, since he’s actually falling for “Lady Edith.”
The movie’s big-picture con is the real sting operation known as Abscam. And yes, like the legend at the start has it, some of this did happen. Just not a whole lot. For instance, Mayor Polito is depicted in the movie as a loving family man who really cares for his community. He may be willing to cut some legal corners, but only because he wants to restore Atlantic City to its former glory and, yes, create jobs. Polito’s real-life counterpart, Angelo Errichetti, was a sleaze-bucket who pretty much deserved anything he got. Making the mayor a noble man, though, gives “Hustle” an extra dimension. What if the “bad guy” you’re targeting is actually a good guy? Meantime, our “heroes” — Irving and Sydney — are morally not a lot more evolved than cockroaches. But we have to love them for their survival instincts.
The question of what is fake and what is genuine gives “American Hustle” its thematic core. It also mirrors the movie itself, which veers tonally from scene to scene, with the actors one minute feeling completely plausible, the next like they’re playacting under acres of polyester and badly crimped ’70s hair. Director Russell and his cast seem to be making things up sometimes. As a result, the movie occasionally stumbles, but it also breathes.
Cooper and Adams have the strongest chemistry here; they open up together onscreen, even though their characters ultimately aren’t meant for each other. For the bulk of her time Adams (great, as she often is) has to act opposite Bale, whose love affair seems mainly to be with his own Method-actor attachments: the paunch and the comb-over. He’s a terrific actor, technically. But he works in a self-regarding bubble. That’s why the remoteness of Batman suited him, though Russell brought out a nice wild (and Oscar-winning) streak in him for “The Fighter.” The director also took Adams to a new zone in the same movie, drawing out an unsuspected brass.
And speaking of brass . . . that leads me to Jennifer Lawrence. More than anyone here, she comes across as a kid playing dress-up. Even though she’s terrifically talented, she’s miscast as a manipulative Long Island broad with a school-age son. (Come on, people, she’s only 23, and sometimes looks 17!) But hey, she’s still pretty great. Though she lacks the right age, background and accent for the part, she attacks scenes with such off-kilter giddiness, you never know what she’ll come up with. The red-alert nervousness of the other characters sharing scenes with her makes complete sense. To that extent, she’s one of the best things about “American Hustle.” And a mascot for everything that simultaneously works and isn’t quite right about it.
“American Hustle.” With Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner. Directed by David O. Russell. Rated R. 129 minutes. At area theaters.
Click here to see photos of the bold 70s fashions worn in the film, including vintage Bob Mackie and Halston dresses.