Pants on Fire
By Adam Nayman

American Hustle
Dir. David O. Russell, U.S., Columbia Pictures

Based loosely on the true story of an FBI operation targeting public corruption, American Hustle is basically a less exotic, polyester-clad doppelganger for Argo—a lushly produced, seventies-inflected crowd-pleaser about a showbiz-style sting. Instead of American entertainers going abroad on a rescue mission, here we find indigenous hucksters practicing their dark arts on home turf (with the help of a phony sheik no less). That the dupes in this movie are greedy American politicians rather than malevolent Middle Easterners will likely shield David O. Russell from the sort of concerned-citizen-of-the-world critiques that affronted Ben Affleck en route to his Oscar-night glory.

But Argo, for its myriad flaws, is actually the tighter and more likeable film, in addition to boasting a more appetizing charcuterie spread of hambone performances. Give me John Goodman and Alan Arkin over Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, any day. Cooper particularly grates in American Hustle, and I’m inclined to blame the role more than the actor, whose recent attempts to play against his rakish persona from The Hangover seem more a case of misplaced than bad faith. As the (entirely fictional) FBI agent Richie DiMaso, whose (mostly authentic) crusade against New Jersey’s white-collar criminal class leads him to forcibly recruit a pair of (mostly fictionalized) local his-and-hers con artists, Cooper aims for the same barely restrained mania as in Silver Linings Playbook, but it never feels like the craziness is coming from inside the character. Rather, it’s as if Richie’s wild, erratic emotions—pride, insecurity, lust alpha-male competitiveness—are chiefly attributable to the sensibility of his director. This sort of overdeterminedly zany acting is straight out of the David O. Russell Playbook—a thin pamphlet printed in large-point Comic Sans.

American Hustle makes it clear that Richie’s burning desire to lure certain Atlantic City big shots into the Bureau’s crosshairs is a byproduct of his professional ambition, a hemmed-in personal life (he lives in a cramped apartment with a ghoulishly bellowing Italian mother) and also a post-Watergate cultural climate of swashbuckling investigative do-goodery. What’s more, it’s implied that his ingrained Woodward-and-Bernstein complex ends up doing more harm than good: the main target of his operation, a good-hearted, mob connected New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) is painted as a genuine man of the people who has to be coaxed into going on the take and even then has only the best intentions of helping to rebuild his state’s dilapidated economy with his ill-gotten gains. Renner’s weaselly features serve him well when he’s playing a decent man; it’s not a great role but he’s less strained here than in showier parts.

The ostensible complexity of a scenario where the crooks are, in their way, more upstanding and forthright than the trained agents on their tails is perfect for Russell, who has always cast his lot with tricksters and misfits even as he’s mutated into an oddly upstanding Hollywood filmmaker. The curlicues of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook are adornments on what are basically classical genre pictures, with the difference being that the former increasingly derived strength from its sports-movie formula while the latter gradually congealed into a lumpily ordinary romantic comedy. Working with his largest budget and biggest-name cast to date, Russell takes the opportunity to cross-pollinate genres (caper-flick, period piece, docudrama) and inventory influences (Scorsese, Altman, Wilder), as well as to wreak playful havoc with history. The opening title card reads “Some of This Stuff Actually Happened,” which is a good joke except that Michael Bay got there already earlier this year in Pain and Gain. Anyone who’s ever wondered whether the perennially sprung, lunatic quality of Russell’s characters was a case of authorial self-deprecation or self-flattery will find a pretty definitive answer here: American Hustle is the work of somebody angling to be received as a virtuoso outlaw sweetheart—just like the smooth operators onscreen.

So if Agent DiMaso is a figure of fun for the movie—his hair curled into springy little ringlets that suggest an extension of a brain on the verge of fritz—Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is Russell’s true surrogate, a man whose demagnetized moral compass still points true north. In an opening scene that’s so deliberately off-handed as to cancel out its genuine cleverness, we see Irving donning a kind of suit of (un)professional armor—squeezing his rotund body into a gaudy jacket and fussing obsessively with a comb-over that’s just a few follicles short of a Farrelly brothers gag. There’s a palimpsest quality here, as Irving’s primping slots cozily over the top of Bale’s own quick-change act, and it sets a nicely heady tone that the rest of the movie only intermittently lives up to. Elsewhere, the script’s ideas about masquerade are less inspired, like having Irving’s long-legged accomplice/lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) maintain her posh, phony British accent while she’s strategically romancing Richie—an implausibly screwball conceit.

And, speaking of screwball conceits, there’s also Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s baby-hausfrau wife, Rosalyn, who is basically a walking, talking wrench lodging herself in the delicate gears of her husband’s plans. That the soft-bellied, hard-living Irving would have attracted a desperate striver like Sydney is at least somewhat plausible—their courtship, which dominates the film’s first section, has a genuine tingle of contraband complicity. But Lawrence’s work as a socially anxious homebody strains credibility—if not her acting chops—to a breaking point. Following Winter’s Bone and Silver Linings Playbook, J-Law has emerged as some sort of scarily proficient, award-magnet automaton (maybe she’s really high-level OS, just like Her) and the snap that she gives her line readings here is that of a natural, unforced comedienne. At times, she seems to be channeling Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Of all the actors in the cast, she’s the best suited to navigating her character’s hairpin behavioral turns—from slinky to shrill and back again—but that’s also because Russell wisely doesn’t overexpose her: it’s over an hour of screen before Rosalyn gets really integrated into the action, at which point her whirling-dervish presence serves as a needed pick me up.

On this point: American Hustle is way too long at 132 minutes. The best caper movies are fleet on their feet, and Russell never works up quite enough velocity; the scenes where Richie butts heads with his put-upon boss (Louis C.K.) are a drag—and the running gag of having C.K.’s character always being interrupted in the middle of a supposedly resonant anecdote only heightens the feeling of spinning wheels. It doesn’t help that so many of the set pieces are clichés, whether in terms of visual familiarity (an extended scene in a strobe-lit discotheque) or derivative staging (a tense group stare-down with a Miami mobster played by an uncredited Robert De Niro takes a big old bite out of Boogie Nights). And even when the dialogue isn’t being too broadly declarative of the movie’s themes—Irving’s ode to a forged Rembrandt painting competes with the chatter about Marivaux in Blue Is the Warmest Color for the year’s most prosaic in-film explication—the drawn-out exchanges rarely take the characters anywhere they haven’t been heading from the moment they first stepped onscreen.

This being a Russell film, they’re headed for the same happy ending he keeps conjuring up regardless of whether his movies earn them, except this time he puts the cynical calculation front and center. The final scenes remind us that the people we’ve been rooting for are charlatans to the core—and all the more lovable for it. So we’re supposed to take Bale’s grinning mug at the end of the film as evidence that at the ripe old middle-age of forty-something, this pathological prevaricator has gotten the face he deserves. Russell is a smart enough filmmaker to give these passages at least a faint whiff of ambivalence, but what they’re actually redolent of is something far more rank: a movie passing off second-handed observations as offhandedly profound truth. It’s generally a rule that movies with “American” in their title will overreach their boundaries by trying to offer some sort of state-of-the-nation treatise—be it on Beauty or Psychos or Gangsters—and Hustle is no exception. Nor is it exceptional, really, in any way. Its lazy reminder that graft is just business as usual is itself business as usual.