A fundamental pleasure of the movies is simply the voluptuous quality of pictures on screen.
The basic stuff of images in motion has thrilled people since the beginning of film in the late 1800s. And when those goodies are wrapped into images of human actors, and the marvel of a good story, it’s irresistible. This is the case with David O. Russell’s "American Hustle" -- one of the best and liveliest American movies I've seen in 15 years.
Right from the start, the movie hits you with a storm of physicality, at once attractive, repulsive and funny. Actors Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper play their parts under two of the worst hairdos in the history of film. Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is the charming and gross owner of a few dry cleaning businesses.
He develops a taste for fraud, but gets nabbed by Cooper’s FBI agent Richie DeMaso who turns Rosenfeld and his partner/girlfriend into bait for a bigger operation. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) lives in dresses cut nearly to her navel with so much chest on display that as beautiful as she is, Ms. Prosser should get some outside advice before she buys any new clothing.
But the men’s dreadfully mismatched ties, shirts and jackets are the perfect complement to Prosser’s fashion crimes.
Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) arrives under a bouffant Elvis hairdo; Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whom my mother would have called blowsy, oozes out of her dresses like soft dough. Topped by a pile of teased and dyed blond hair, Rosalyn is punctuated by a stunning cluelessness about her world.
There’s genius in all of this. These costumes are crucial to a movie that gets right to the heart of America’s long-time fascination with con-artists, and imagines American politics as a fitful parade of clowns.
The movie has its roots in the infamous “ABSCAM” scandal from 1978, when FBI agents nabbed five Congressmen, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey and other politicos lining up to take bribes from agents posing as rich Arabs.
The names have been changed, and the film announces up front that “some of the events in the movie actually happened.”
What’s true in the film is its picture of the fakery of our world right now. All that physicality is part of the hoax.
A hilarious early scene shows Irving Rosenfeld working on his comb-over to give his very thin hair the illusion of heft and richness. Bale carries a substantial belly, flaccid face and a lumbering walk, and he makes the substance of this guy palpable, just as director Russell sticks the camera right up against the actors’ faces to certify their cinematic heft.
But it’s illusion, because they are all in the business of deception.
The characters love mirrors, fixing themselves so you know that however they look, it’s constructed. FBI agent DeMaso, his hair set in tight rows of curlers, talks to Sydney on the phone, her hair also twined in pink curlers.
The film layers pretense on pretense, to feed a scheme that involves mob money from Miami, gambling in Atlantic City, and also the FBI plot to catch – some would say entrap – the gaggle of politicians.
The caper means agents posing as crooks and crooks posing as different crooks.
America itself is based on people coming here and reinventing themselves. That's why we love the con artist. American drama, fiction and film especially love the faker who may actually do something good.
Think of "The Music Man" or "The Great Gatsby". "American Hustle" revels in that material.
It’s funny. It cuts right into who we are. David O. Russell gets terrific performances, and he has the discipline to keep the movie from wasting itself into silly chaos and farce.
Howie Movshovitz has been reviewing films for Colorado Public Radio for many years, and he teaches film at the University of Colorado Denver.