My annual Oscar quest concludes at last! David O. Russell’s layered, fascinating American Hustle was the ninth and final film on my playlist, saved for last because I correctly guessed that all the other nominees would exit our local theaters first. A healthy U.S. box office gross of $144 million (and counting) ensured that Hustle would stick around exactly as long as I’d hoped. This week has arrived just in time — after this month-long marathon, my local theater and I could really use a break from each other for a while.
Short version for the unfamiliar: American Hustle is based on the famous, offensively nicknamed Abscam story, in which several ’70s politicians were caught in a federal sting involving bribery, Arab millionaires, political backroom promises, and expensive fashions. In this partly fictionalized version, a bloated, pork-fed Christian Bale and his mistress Amy Adams are con artists enlisted by FBI agent Bradley Cooper and his sentient perm into an entrapment project that first targets the earnest mayor of Camden, NJ (an enormous, wig-shaped parasite latched onto Jeremy Renner’s scalp), then branches out as other corrupt statesmen keep wandering within reach of their web of hair. I mean lies. Web of lies.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The side of the angels includes Louis C.K. as a Midwestern FBI supervisor with an ice-fishing story that could change your life if he ever finishes it; Alessandro Nivola (Face/Off, Jurassic Park 3) as his supervisor; and Michael Pena (Crash, World Trade Center) as a Mexican-American agent playing an Arab and succeeding through the miracle of ’70s racism. Besides Renner and each other, their opponents include Shea Whigham (Wolf of Wall Street) as one of several suckers; Elizabeth Rohm (Kate Lockley from TV’s Angel) as the pleasant, innocent wife of the mayor of Camden; and a Mob boss played by an uncredited Oscar winner with Mob boss experience, in the most elderly-looking role of his long career.
Winning the movie in her precious few scenes is Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s wife, who’s not as smart as she thinks she is, but it’s hard for the other characters to break this to her because sometimes the dumb things she says and does yield smart and necessary consequences, even if she didn’t really mean for those things to happen, until they turn out to be the right thing to do, in which case she totally did. Of all the movie’s self-deceptions, hers are the sharpest and funniest, even if her character doesn’t think so.
Nitpicking? Hair is not something that normally registers with me, but this movie has the most distracting hair of all time. The actresses’ hairdressers revel in high-maintenance disco-era nostalgia, which remind me of my mom’s old fashion magazine collection. The actors are cursed with more, uh, daring ‘dos of the times, as worn by men who didn’t own mirrors. Between Cooper’s curlers, Bale’s toupee, and Renner’s young-Elvis coiffure, you’d think they’re facing off in a reality show called America’s Next Javier Bardem.
One of the most frightening sequences I’ve seen in years is the first scene, in which Bale spends several minutes on his morning toupee procedure. I’ve never watched anyone put one on, had no idea what a real one looked like outside a sitcom, and am now convinced I will not be exercising the Toupee Option when my own encroaching baldness reaches critical levels in my 50s.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? As with several other objects and moments, the toupee is a symbol — one of many props and facades used by the characters when trying to be what they aren’t. Nearly everyone has their guarded secrets, great or small. Bale has his toupee; Adams, her British accent that everyone trusts; Cooper, his bluster and FBI credentials, in that order; Renner, his good intentions to bolster New Jersey’s economy through shady means; Lawrence, her status symbols and her excuses for keeping Bale under her thumb; and for so many others, whatever promises will result in money begetting more money. Relationships and situations remain in constant flux as lies are shifted, exposed, replaced, and topped, until you need a scorecard to remember which characters still have alliances with which other characters.
(The symbolism runs so rampant that even Lawrence’s young harridan tries drawing parallels between Bale’s hollow promises and a dangerously misunderstood appliance. Her ignorance sabotages the analogy, but it’s adorable that she even tried to act all literary.)
So did I like it or not? I wasn’t crazy about the marketing campaign that seemed all about sexy Hollywood swaggering, but Hustle is one of the most complicated, intellectually leveled films in this year’s race. Despite all that scary hair.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the American Hustle end credits, but you can confirm uncredited Mob boss is very uncredited, and you can catch the names of two dozen top-40 artists from the ’70s whose music wasn’t already used up in Wolf of Wall Street. Biggest surprise: far as I could tell, “The Hustle” appears nowhere in this film.