“People believe what they want to believe,” says con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in American Hustle. I wanted to believe in the movie, but I couldn’t, starting with its hard sell that any of its characters are worth much. American Hustle is a loose, borderline-farcical treatment of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s. The sting took down a number of politicians convicted of taking bribes, including the mayor of Camden, N.J., fictionalized here as Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a good Italian boy with an epic pompadour. The styles and attitudes of almost all the characters are ludicrous; this is another 21st-century movie that invites us to chortle fondly at the sartorial excesses of the ’70s while trying to crank us up with classic-rock needle-drops and aping the cinematic style from the era, particularly its American master, Martin Scorsese.
Oh, David O. Russell must have had a ball for himself directing the film. He gets to engage in any number of patented Scorsese tracking shots; he reunites with no fewer than four favorite actors from two of his previous movies (Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook). But American Hustle left me feeling much the same way Boogie Nights did. In both, dynamic camerawork and epic breadth (American Hustle runs two hours and eighteen minutes) seem to mock and belittle the bottom-dog subjects of the movies. The problem with biting from Scorsese’s style is that if you lack Scorsese’s passion and obsession — which animate his style and make it feel like the way he sees the world — you’re left with empty technique, and that’s what happens with a lot of American Hustle.
It’s a comedy, but it seems to want to be more, starting with its self-important title (the script, by Eric Warren Singer, was originally called American Bullshit). People in the movie keep justifying themselves by claiming they’re not in it for themselves. Which is a useful satirical element, except that the movie kind of buys into the justifications. Irving Rosenfeld, for instance, balances a home life with flaky young wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and her son with his relationship/partnership with another con artist, Sydney (Adams). The FBI agent who busts Irving and Sydney, Richie DiMaso (Cooper), is almost insane with ambition to make bigger busts and a name for himself, which he passes off as duty. Carmine Polito makes well-meaning noises about doing everything for his community. Russell half makes fun of these people and half feels sorry for them. They’re just doing what they have to do. Of course, they almost all have stupid hair and funny accents (Amy Adams is the only one who escapes — the camera loves her).
Richie compels Irving and Sydney (who poses as a Brit with banking connections) to help him catch politicians on the take. They produce a Hispanic FBI agent and pass him off as a sheik looking to invest in casinos on the East Coast. Blinded by money, and believing what they want to believe, a lot of powerful men are caught on tape taking the briefcase. (In real life, one man was approached but didn’t bite — Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. Given the film’s ’70s fetish, it’s surprising Guccione, or a version of him, didn’t make it into the movie.) But the scamming scenes go by so fast we don’t get much sense of their logistics or the emotions involved. It seems that David O. Russell isn’t all that interested in the story; all he wants to do is play with the camera and indulge his actors. Sometimes this works and entertains, sometimes not: one of the worst and most pointless scenes of the year has to be Jennifer Lawrence lip-syncing the living shit out of “Live and Let Die.” Other actors’ bits, such as when a desperate Irving and a wary Carmine find common ground, and Bale and Renner perform it flawlessly, are top-shelf.
At such moments, the film’s believe-what-they-want-to-believe motif comes alive. But American Hustle, like Boogie Nights before it, vaults heedlessly between bedraggled comedy and serious-stakes scenes in which the director shuts off the fun. This sort of tonal shift only works when it feels organic, and nothing in American Hustle feels organic; everything has been exaggerated and, in the end, Hollywoodized. Everyone gets what the audience wants them to get. The cast has boisterous personality to spare, but we’re locked outside of it because the film itself has none. Are we supposed to laugh at these people or with them? Russell is part of a generation of smarty-pants filmmakers whose eyes are bleared over — they have no clear vision of what they want to do other than to make cool movies with cool actors. American Hustle is geared towards grown-ups, and that might explain some of its grateful reception among critics tired of superhero movies. But grown-ups deserve and should hold out for better.