The opening scene of American Hustle — a loud, loquacious, upper-fueled romp through the avenues of high stakes swindling — plays somewhat like a Buster Keaton short. We watch a schlubby Christian Bale fumble (with as much delicacy as someone can, in fact, fumble) with a greasy combover and a dime store toupee, laughing at the small scale physical comedy and learning more than you'd expect about Bale's con man character Irving Rosenfeld before we even meet him or hear him speak.
But there is nary a silent moment in the two-and-half hours to follow. Its people speak in explosions. The passions are dialed all the way up between Irv, his accomplice and girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the venemous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who rangles the pair into the biggest heist of their career. There's no tranquility in the waters of their high-stakes operation to take down a New Jersey mayor, the Italian mob, and quite possibly a few of the dirtier suits in Congress. When things proceed like clockwork, we're talking diving pendulums and cuckoo birds darting from every crevice. Naturally, it's all the more fun when things go awry.
And, of course they do. It wouldn't be a heist movie without a few cogs springing loose. But the beauty of American Hustle is in its undoing. From start to finish, Irv and Sydney are pros at the game. They leave no stone unturned in pulling the wool over the eyes of every deadbeat, mafioso, and active senator that finds his unlucky way into their eyeline. Even the misguided improvisations of Cooper's control freak lawman don't serve to uproot the plans from their course. We don't suffer through a dropping of their guard or an overlooking of important details. Everything that goes wrong in this movie is embedded in character.
The follies, screw-ups, and mutinies are all emotionally charged, inspired by romantic rivalry, ego, flights of affection, and the ribald distate that so many of these people have for each other. Everything in this big, flashy, high-stakes movie is personal. It's a toxic, burning love/hate/envy/longing/attraction/friendship/enmity between every conceivable pairing in this dynamic cast of rich, strong, uproarious characters that fuels the movie and drags down the scheme at its center.
And just about everyone we meet is dragged into the maniacal nucleus by the arms of anxious passion. Irv's spitfire wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) outranks the lot of her company in the screws-loose department, stirring the pot of her unfaithful husband's business dealings as soon as she crosses the threshold into his world. The psychopathically dutiful Richie (Cooper) sees anyone who tries to temper his occupational obsessions as the enemy, even his pragmatic Midwesterner boss (Louis C.K.). And at the head of the race is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), unaware of his place in this tremendous game but coursing at top speeds on an engine of his democratic heart nonetheless. The characters are all operating at 11, and most of the actors are able to keep up.
As Irv, a uniquely undesirable Bale is a laugh every minute. We enter this world through him — a world of accessible lies, of rough-and-tumble New York streets, of Long Island parties, of Duke Ellington, of hairpieces, of dry cleaners, of only conning the men you can stomach the idea of laying to waste — and have a terrific time walking in his footsteps. Always just out of reach is Adams as Sydney, who cons herself just as often as she does Richie, Irv, and the poor saps who fall for her seductive act. Bale and Adams are the standouts of the cast — playing their hearts on their sleeves and tucked away tightly, respectively — so it's good fortune that most of our time is spent with one or the other.
The power players from director David O. Russell's last effort, Cooper and Lawrence, shine a bit dimmer here — Cooper plays Richie as petulant, misguided, and teetering on the edge, but he's undercooked beside the far meatier material presented by Bale and Adams. Lawrence, while not without her moments, never seems to commit altogether to the loon that is Rosalyn, alternating between too reserved and too outlandish to really make the character feel like somebody. But the biggest surprise of the lot might be Renner, who has more fun as his Jersey boy Carmine than he ever has onscreen. But in earnest, some credit goes to the hair.
It's the electricity of American Hustle that keeps its long narrative from dragging. We have fun with the characters, the performances, and the colorful world itself. The movie never insists that we feel anything beyond that, but offers a few bites of some authentic empathy for Irv and his kind nonetheless. So we can dip into the bustling character work that Bale and Adams are mastering, Cooper is handling, and Lawrence is just falling shy of delivering on, but we're free to latch onto the life preserver of this movie's output of comedy. There's so much to laugh at in American Hustle, and some wonderfully molded characters to do all your laughing with.