Lying is an ugly, grubby business, which is why hair maintenance amongst con artists is so important. David O. Russell’s well-coiffed, supremely enjoyable American Hustle opens with a rotund Christian Bale intricately applying a wig to his scalp, disguising it beneath the few strands of heavily lacquered hair he still has left. Russell gives the lengthy sequence plenty of time to breathe, so he must consider it an important aspect of this story, which works just fine by me, because the hairdo parade is pretty much the only thing I want to discuss: from Bradley Cooper’s tightly wound perm, to Jennifer Lawrence’s woozy bouffant. And then there’s Jeremy Renner, struggling beneath the weight of the squirrel that died on his head. They play flappable people with unflappable hair in this, oh, let's call it a 'parable of primping.'
Based loosely on the ABSCAM sting of the late 1970s (an early credit incredulously states that “some of this actually happened”), the picture comes from writer Eric Warren Singer, though Russell himself reportedly retooled the script. It concerns professional con man Irving Rosenfeld (inspired by real life scammer, Mel Weinberg) and his grifter girlfriend Sydney (an enigmatic Amy Adams), who are nabbed dead to rights by upwardly mobile, coke-addled FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). They’re recruited by the agency in an ambitious hunt for some big game. So begins Irving and Sydney’s most audacious ploy yet: an attempt to catch New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) with his hand in the their pocket. It all goes swimmingly at first. Irving and Carmine become fast, false friends (the latter gifting the former with a microwave, more commonly referred to as a “science oven”). That is, until Irving’s unstable, manipulative wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) starts cosying up to the mobsters with whom Carmine is dangerously affiliated, and everyone finds themselves deeper than they could have ever imagined.
Enough plot. Back to the hair. As the plan unfolds –and ultimately, unravels – our heroes justify their duplicitous actions to one another by saying that the fibs they’ve told are no different than the fibs they tell atop their skulls. Sydney suggests her total fabrication of an identity is no larger a lie than someone using curlers to change the look of their otherwise-straight locks. Dapper Danny Ocean, by comparison, made all his scheming (and suit-wearing) seem so slick. In American Hustle, these cons can only hide under their hair for so long. When they have to come clean with one another, or lower their guard enough to reveal their deepest, darkest dreams, they turn into blubbering messes. It’s a deliriously uncool movie populated by deliriously uncool characters. Russell’s handiwork affirms that, and his directorial flourishes (deployed better here than they were in Silver Linings Playbook) help convey how this scheme is always teetering uneasily on the edge of control. The camera dizzily lilts from Bale’s face to his belly on occasion; moments linger for a little longer than we’d anticipate; artificial zooms make the grainy film stock look that little bit grainier. These people are a mess, and so, happily, is the feature that contains them. Danny Ocean would not be welcome in it.
Russell’s last two efforts collected seven acting Oscar nominations between them (and we can expect his latest to add to that tally). What does that mean, besides the fact the Academy clearly got a kick out of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook? Well, perhaps only that. But we now have three consecutive flicks in which movie stars follow him to more vulnerable places than they would go for other filmmakers, as well as dabble in broader comedy. Actors trust him. Sometimes the results are embarrassing (see: Melissa Leo in The Fighter and her subsequent Oscar speech); more often than not, they’re thrilling.
Cooper gave his best ever turn in Silver Linings, and he’s almost as good here, again abandoning his pretty boy reputation to play someone fairly unhinged: a bad liar with a worse coke habit and a sexually voracious appetite. His shared scenes with Louis C.K., as his flustered boss, are brilliant. (If I told you that C.K. was the straight man, would you even believe me? Cooper does a wordless impression of him that absolutely killed.) Bale is similarly excellent, gaining 20 kilos for the part (at this point in his transformative career, Bale would probably describe such a task as “a Tuesday”). What’s really marvellous about him is how sweet and sympathetic he makes Irving, and, eventually, sad and pathetic too. Lawrence, the youngest cast member by 15 years, holds her own against this lot. Though her Rosalyn feigns ditziness (“accidentally” setting her house on fire at least twice), she’s a cannier operator than she lets on. Seeing Lawrence manipulate the hulking Bale is a sight to behold; he's rendered an impotent, apologetic mess by her scheming ways. Adams’ Sydney is left similarly bemused after being confronted by Rosalyn in the bathroom, who reflects on some "dark, f***ed up" choices she's made, plants a kiss on her, and then cackles maniacally. Her character is no joke, but boy, does Lawrence make us laugh.
American Hustle is a cutting comedy of con man errors. Despite the complicated plot sometimes getting away from Singer and Russell, the emotional arcs of the protagonists – played to perfection – are juicy enough to keep us invested. And any movie that uses Steely Dan’s ‘Dirty Work’ as an opening tone-setter is going to hold a special place in my heart. It also contributes to that wonderful ‘uncool’ factor that permeates the rest of proceedings. Only if it had instead opened with Hall and Oates could American Hustle and its memorable, colourful cast of coiffured characters have seemed more endearingly out of touch.