American Hustle doesn’t amount to much – it’s another slick con-mentary on deception as the underbelly of the American dream – but wow does it have some electric performances. Sometimes, it’s enough to watch some really talented actors have a whole lot of fun.
Christian Bale’s talent has long been one I’ve admired from afar. He’s a gifted chameleon, but the elaborate change of his colors often seemed to take precedence over whatever character he happened to be playing. This isn’t the case with Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con man running investment schemes in 1978 New Jersey. True, director David O. Russell, who previously worked with Bale on The Fighter, opens the film with a close-up of Irving’s bulging gut, but this time Bale builds the character from the inside out. The next few minutes are devoted to Irving meticulously arranging his hair piece and comb-over, and Russell lets the scene run long enough for the laughs to subside while Bale hits notes of sadness, desperation and pride. The physicality feeds the character, not the other way around.
Irving is the central figure of American Hustle, but not by much. Just as integral to the story is Sydney Prosser, Irving’s mistress and partner in con. Sydney is played by Amy Adams, who has long ago shaken up her comedienne image, yet this is the first time I’ve really bought her as the snake in the grass (she had her moments in The Master, but wasn’t quite this consistent). Sydney is as clever as Irving, as well as something he’s not: merciless. Adams brings a venom to the performance that you can even sense in her vulnerable scenes. Just because Sydney is crying doesn’t mean she won’t bite.
Sometimes, it’s enough to watch some really talented actors have a whole lot of fun.
She and Irving spend much of the movie being cornered. Early on, they’re nabbed by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, pushing the mania a bit harder than he did for Russell in Silver Linings Playbook). DiMaso strikes a deal: they help him set up a sting operation for a prominent politician (Jeremy Renner) and he’ll let them off. They reluctantly agree, but pretty soon all three of them are in over their heads.
Renner is excellent in a fairly quiet supporting part; Jennifer Lawrence is even better in the movie’s loudest one. She plays Rosalyn, Irving’s young wife and the mother of a son Irving has legally adopted and tenderly cares for. Rosalyn is meant to be the movie’s comic relief – she’s a walking firetrap, what with her sun lamp and new “science oven” – but Lawrence is too good to leave it at that. When Rosalyn inserts herself into Richie, Sydney and Irving’s scheme, the psychology behind her attention-seeking neediness comes to the forefront. She’s another frail human seeking strength in deception, especially self-deception.
Bale is remarkably deferential in his scenes with Lawrence – in fact, in the way he dials down his usual intensity, he’s deferential throughout the film. Partly this is because that’s part of Irving’s nature – he holds his cards close – but Bale has proven he’s capable of taking over a film no matter what the part. Not so here. Nodding in agreement, hiding behind his sunglasses and hair piece, Bale lets everyone else do the shouting while letting us know that Irving’s mind is constantly in motion. I haven’t seen him give a better performance.