I’m not sure American Hustle is the best picture of the year. I’m not even sure if it’s my favorite picture of the year. But I’m pretty sure it brought me more oh-hell-yes pleasure than anything else I saw in 2013, starting with the opening scene.
We open with grim reality: the swollen gut of a middle-aged man (Irving Rosenfeld, slouchily portrayed by Christian Bale) who has indulged himself beyond his body’s capacity to retain its original shape. Just desserts, perhaps, but the camera doesn’t let us tut-tut our way out of the situation. Instead, it pans up to reveal blind nature’s remorseless ravage: an advanced case of male pattern baldness, made all the more painful by the luxurious swaths of hair that surround it. Life is cruel. What are you going to do about it?
Here’s what you’re going to do about it: you’re going to painstakingly apply a thatch of ersatz hair to your scalp and secure it with spirit gum. Then you’re going to coax those side swaths up and over, shaping, sculpting, and finally sealing your handiwork into place with industrial-grade hairspray. Then you’re going to button your shirt and your vest, put on your jacket and ascot, and head out to work in the world — only to have some overzealous government functionary with more ambition than brains and a better handle on what’s legal than on what’s right come along and louse it up. It’s all there, right in the opening scene. The rest of the movie is simply a delightful expansion on the theme.
If you’re Irving Rosenfeld, your work is conning folks. I mean, just by leaving his room, he’s already doing it: “I am a man with a full head of hair.” In this, he asserts, he is no different from anyone else: we are all working the con, often against ourselves. Rosenfeld thrives because he is smart enough to focus his energies outward. He’s smart in other ways, too — smart enough to realize when he’s found something real amid the fakes: fellow conner Sydney (Amy Adams in the role of a lifetime). The trouble is, he’s already married, and to a girl he just can’t quit (Jennifer Lawrence, half smart and all blonde). Sometimes, being wise to the play isn’t enough to beat it.
So, yes, there’s an appropriately twisty plot, based on the FBI’s real-life late-’70s Abscam operation into congressional corruption. But the plot is not the point. The people are the point. Jeremy Renner as the sincerely populist mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Bradley Cooper as a desperately hungry FBI agent who doesn’t know enough to shut up and listen to his boss’s fishing story. And Robert De Niro, scary again after all these years.
Given this wealth of material, it’s not surprising that director David O. Russell gets a bit self-indulgent. The running time could stand a good trimming, and the voiceover stinks of its own sort of ambitious overreach. But the movie’s hustle is good enough that you’re still likely to leave smiling.