“American Hustle” is about people who define themselves by hairdos.
It begins with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) preparing the elaborate toupee-combover combo that gives him confidence to cheat suckers in 1978. Seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his faux-British sidekick, swings long auburn locks to distract these marks.
When we see Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), his towering pompadour reveals a guy who’s 20 years behind the times and foolish enough to put his reputation on the line in a colossal scam.
The bouffant ’do piled on Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), indicates a combative young woman who went through high school pointing the sharp end of a rattail comb at classmates and asking, “You want some of this?”
And the short pin curls on FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) suggest a vain, tightly wrapped man who’s likely to explode when challenged, but be led by the nose by a woman.
In fact, the whole film rests on externals: the cold and depressing architecture of New Jersey 35 years ago, the accents and leisure suits and cheesy music that tell us we’re in a bad place with bad people. Think of this as the anti-“Argo,” which takes place a year later: We may not want any of these people to escape captivity.
Director David O. Russell, who co-wrote the script with Eric Warren Singer, seldom lets us under the skins of these characters. We know the fears that gnaw them: Irving is afraid of being outwitted, Sydney of poverty, Rosalyn of abandonment. But this is a plot-driven film, with characters changing (or seeming to change) allegiances, and their personalities recede when the big con begins.
DiMaso, who has caught Irving and Sydney swindling people out of investment money, makes a pitch: He’ll let them off the hook if they help with Abscam.
Another FBI agent (Michael Peña) poses as an Arab sheik who wants instantaneous citizenship, so he can invest in the casinos waiting to overrun Atlantic City. Congressmen brought in by the hapless Polito take bribes for promising to smooth the sheik’s path, but the sting falters as Rosenfeld has second thoughts.
The movie begins with my favorite disclaimer of the year: “Some of this actually happened.” The real Abscam resulted in the conviction of about a dozen people, including seven from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Real-life Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti went to prison for a few years.
Yet this isn’t a history lesson. It’s pure entertainment, an excuse for good actors to romp through a twisting, well-told tale. (Except for Renner, the least convincing player on this team, all the leads have worked with Russell.)
Bale, who gained weight for the role, scrunches over and scratches a balloon belly; I wouldn’t buy a 25-cent comic book from this guy, but other characters take him at face value. Adams relies on a come-hither smile and a posh English accent; Cooper blurts and blusters like a sputtering volcano.
All are fun to watch, but only Lawrence gets deep inside her role. I lived in Atlantic City in 1978 – furniture in my apartment came from a hotel torn down to build the first casino – and her lonely, angry, desperate Rosalyn is the only character who doesn’t veer toward caricature. I could have stuck my head out of the apartment window any morning and seen half a dozen such women pass by.