Falling prey to a fraud scheme in real life is a nuisance at best, devastating at worst. But as long as we’re hearing about them from a safe storytelling distance, we humans seem hard-wired to adore con artists. Practically every oral tradition has its trickster archetypes, from Anansi, Coyote and Raven to Aesop’s Fox, Jack the Giant-Killer and Br’er Rabbit. We love to hear of wily Odysseus gulling the Cyclops; in fact, the ancient Greeks respected skillful con men so well that they even assigned them their own guardian deity, Hermes. The character of the cunning servant proved enduringly popular from classical Greek and Roman theatre through Shakespeare’s comedies, Italian commedia dell’arte and French farces like Molière’s Scapin.
The cinematic tradition is no exception, of course. Amongst its long roster of garden-variety trickster tales, Hollywood has evolved its own peculiar genre generally identified as the “caper film.” Typically these leaven action and suspense with comedy and a bit of romance, often between criminals competing for the same prize (or alternatively, a crook and an investigator). More often than not the audience is invited to root for the perpetrators rather than the lawmen. In most “classic” examples of the caper genre, the masterminds are depicted as attractive, elegant and sophisticated people. If only we could be as cool and as smart as they are, we think, we could pull off a spectacular heist as well – ethical qualms be damned.
David O. Russell’s new film American Hustle is a splendid addition to the list of caper flicks, but veers off from the conventions in major ways. For one thing, the tone of lighthearted criminal fun gives way toward the end of the second act to a lot of angst and desperation that seem a bit out of character for the genre. And though the main characters in this convoluted puzzler – loosely based on the 1978 Abscam sting operation – may think of themselves as elegant and sophisticated, seen in historical retrospect, they seem ridiculous. To some degree this impression is dependent on cheap shots about ugly 1970s clothes and hairstyles, which are all good fun at first but wear thin over the movie’s somewhat excessive two-and-a-half-hour length.
From the very first scene – of Christian Bale as small-time loan shark and art fence Irving Rosenfeld, displaying a notable pot belly (did this guy really play Batman?) and constructing an elaborate combover-cum-hairpiece – we are signaled that this movie is going to be about fakery on every conceivable level. Soon enough we’ll discover that ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) puts his hair up in pincurls, Irving’s partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is faking her English accent and claims to aristocracy, while Irving’s bored wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is really into her nail extensions.
The lying and conniving are hardly skin-deep, though; this is one of those movies where everyone has such a game going on that right from the get-go, you don’t take anything that anyone says or does at face value. The challenge for the viewer is to try to stay one jump ahead of who’s zoomin’ who(m). But we’ve seen enough of these sorts of movies by now that American Hustle’s double- and triple-crosses don’t come as such great revelations, and the final plot twist is so lackluster that it almost feels anticlimactic. The main characters are all too skeevy and self-involved for us to experience much catharsis over ultimate winners and losers.
But don’t let those quibbles stop you from seeing American Hustle, which is worth your time if for nothing else than its outstanding comedic ensemble acting. Besides the principals – all of whom are excellent even when they get kind of rambly in their oft-improvised scenes – you also get to see comic Louis C. K. as Richie’s sourpussed, much-put-upon boss Stoddard Thorsen. And Jeremy Renner is particularly endearing as Carmine Polito, a sweet-natured, only-slightly-crooked New Jersey mayor who becomes the unwitting stalking horse for the FBI sting operation, tempted by a fake sheikh’s promises to invest in the revitalization of Atlantic City.
The most compelling reason to see this movie by far is the performance by Jennifer Lawrence, who gets most of the funniest lines. Following up on her Best Actress Oscar in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, the Girl on Fire can do no wrong onscreen these days; she’s a juggernaut, a force of nature. A naïve, materialistic, uneducated suburban housewife who eventually wises up to her husband’s shady dealings and tries to turn the tables, Rosalyn Rosenfeld is basically a retread of Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Jonathan Demme’s 1988 comedy Married to the Mob. But Lawrence takes her to a whole ‘nother level of laugh-out-loud righteous rage. The outrageous way in which Rosalyn manages to get the last word in her ladies’ room catfight with her rival Sydney is one of the few genuine surprises in the film; one can’t help wondering if Lawrence thought it up herself.
All in all, the Best-Movie-of-the-Year hype about American Hustle is a bit of an exaggeration. The unraveling of the yarn isn’t nearly as tautly managed as we’ve come to expect from the slick heist flicks of decades past. But you may find yourself laughing so much that you don’t really notice. So you might say that Russell, with the help of a really talented cast, has managed to pull the wool over our collective eyes after all.