David O. Russell's screechy '70s costume party American Hustle arrives dead as disco 

Hustle and Flaws

Hustle and Flaws

David O. Russell must have some weird memories of the 1970s. The decade he re-creates in American Hustle (not to be confused with comedian Katt Williams' 2007 concert movie of the same name) is a hysterical bizarro world filled with horrendous hairstyles and heaving bosoms that look like they're constantly trying to escape out of dresses. Oh yeah, and soft-rock hits are playing all over the gotdamn place.

That's essentially what I got from Russell's confused, ridiculous 138-minute trip to the Me Decade, set in the tail-end of 1970s New York. Christian Bale slaps on a horrendous combover, a beer belly and a hushed Robert De Niro impersonation as Irving Rosenfeld, a dry-cleaning con man who finds a partner and kindred spirit in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, all plunging neckline), a former stripper who's good at faking a British accent. This comes in handy when they begin jacking poor schnooks looking for loans or art that turns out to be forgeries.

They have a whirlwind romance, even though Rosenfeld has a manipulative, unbalanced wife (Jennifer Lawrence, screeching it up as yet another unstable woman she's too damn young to play) and stepkid at home. They also have a grand ol' time conning folk, until they get pinched by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, with off-putting Tony Roberts hair), an ambitious and possibly unhinged FBI agent. DiMaso eventually gets the pair to help him take down corrupt politicians, starting with Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a generally decent guy out to rebuild Atlantic City.

A somewhat fact-based spin on the infamous ABSCAM scandal, where the FBI cracked down on corrupt public officials via videotaped sting operations, Hustle is — we might as well get this out the way right now — Scorsese-lite. In crafting his own lengthy true-crime period piece, Russell lifts all of the director's signature moves — multi-character voice-over narration, dizzyingly fluid camerawork, a bumper-to-bumper Top 40 hit soundtrack — while indulging his love for Steadicam zoom shots and rather unnecessary pan-downs to hands and ankles.  

Russell also emulates Scorsese's knack for mixing aggressively comical moments in among the high-pitched dramatic confrontations. Although he's shown a flair for combustible indoor fireworks ever since his 1994 debut Spanking the Monkey, Russell amps/camps it up on Hustle. For Chrissakes, the movie begins with the potbellied Bale starting his day off by styling his godawful combover in the mirror. With all the damn-near-repellent wigs and hairdos most of the characters sport, the movie often resembles a Farrelly brothers version of Casino. Hell, even Marty's boy De Niro briefly shows up in his own come-dressed-as-the-'70s get-up as a no-nonsense gangster.

Ironically, the only person who doesn't rock some fake-hair job is Louis C.K., proudly bald as DiMaso's long-suffering FBI supervisor. But this only reinforces how synthetic and shallow Hustle feels for most of its length. As it dips in and out of farcical territory, with characters who seem more like recurring Saturday Night Live fixtures, the movie comes off as inauthentic, unwieldy pulp. Russell rewrote Eric Warren Singer's original script, replacing the script's real-life figures with caricatures. This definitely explains why it's so difficult to take these people seriously — they're barely people at all.

Russell wants it both ways with his characters, nudging you to laugh at these Super '70s caricatures yet feel for them when they're at their most vulnerable. To ensure this, the director gives all the actors their own for-your-consideration moment full of dialogue and heavy emoting. (To show she's not fucking around this time, four-time Oscar nominee Adams does her sans makeup.)

Hustle isn't a complete wreck: It does have a divertingly gamy, expository first hour before Russell sets off a derby to see how loud and manic the movie and its cast can get. From then on, it seems like the main players are competing to see who can chew the most scenery. (The loser, and hence the most affecting figure, is Renner: He gives the movie's most sincere, understated performance under all that Jack Lord hair.)

The movie apparently means to explore the '70s as a time of ruthless, even foolhardy self-invention. But the result has the annoying, cartoonish artificiality of a costume party where everyone's constantly eyeing themselves in the mirror. Considering that the opening coincides with The Wolf of Wall Street (see review on p. 75), the actual Martin Scorsese movie of the holiday season — which I can assure you goes places Russell's '70s show doesn't dare — audiences may discover how much of a hustle American Hustle truly is. 

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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