David O. Russell’s American Hustle is best described as…
a) a paperback novelization of a Martin Scorsese movie
b) an SNL skit that blew the week’s wig budget
c) one of those movies with a solid cast and serious-looking art direction on the DVD cover when you spot it in the discount bin at a 7/11, and you look at it and go “whoa, this never made it into theaters? How’d that happen? Must be a story there” and pick it up on a whim and watch it and it’s pretty good, nothing spectacular, you can at least see why Jessica Lange and Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman signed on
c) an experiment to see how much of Amy Adams’s breasts we can see without ever actually seeing a whole breast. Oh, sure, Tumblr tells us you can see a single nipple for a single split-second in a single scene, but if anything that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance only emphasizes its ephemerality. Perhaps this — not the “no more fake shit” mantra, not the Abscam scandal, not the long cons that may or may not be being run — is the film’s central metaphor, the areola atop its mammary gland of artifice and fakery. In the end, can you ever, like, really see a breast?
American Hustle is a fun enough time at the movies, but a pretty preposterous contender for the best the art form had to offer in the year that was. Virtually all of the characters, from Christian Bale doing the film’s second-worst Robert DeNiro impression to Bradley Cooper eating the scenery like Bale must have been hitting the craft services table to Jennifer Lawrence emotionally careening all the way around an inconsistently drawn Perfidious Female, are actors wearing cool costumes and doing funny accents rather than people. There are a couple of exceptions: Adams is pretty good in a role that requires the character to realize she’s only an ersatz femme fatale for two doofuses rather than the real thing — she reminds me of Bilbo Baggins’ self-descriptive “butter scraped across too much bread”; she has a moment in a bathroom stall, a look on her face, that’s the film’s sole genuinely sexy moment. Jeremy Renner works quite well as a politician whose crookedness is really and truly just a matter of constituent services; his character is set in opposition to the film’s entire project of letting sleazy-looking ’70s clothes and tri-state area ethnicity stand in for a thoroughgoing examination of a milieu. I found myself wishing his career arc between this and, say, Dahmer had flowed less through action-hero stuff and more into just disappearing into life’s casualties like he did in those two films.
The film did have one truly memorable scene, the one where it all came together, where Bale and Adams’s con artists and Cooper’s overly ambitious FBI agent and Renner’s hapless mayor and Lawrence’s desperate housewife are all drawn into a party where the sting they’re involved in suddenly balloons into a monstrosity capable of bringing down senators and destroying one of the most powerful organized crime outfits in North America, which is to say one capable of getting them all killed, even as the personal deceptions each of them has been running on one another threaten to crack up in restroom and bar-stool screaming matches. Everyone involved suddenly has so much to do, so much to think about, so much of it disconnected and drawing them in different directions, that you realize how straightforward and inert the rest of the material is. Previous party scenes feel sparse not just because of the bizarrely low-rent number of extras, you know? You just want the rest of the movie to have thought this hard about this stuff. Instead everyone gets a happy ending except the lawman, which is hilarious in a world that spent several months pillorying The Wolf of Wall Street for insufficient opprobrium directed to its scumbag characters. Crime pays!