American Hustle: The Long Con is a Long, Fantastic Play

By Patrick Kirkland · December 12, 2013

After three 1970s-style studio logos, a fat Christian Bale glues on his hair, piece-by-piece, until it's perfect – only to have it messed with in the next moment. About this time, the man seated next to me yelled to his partner, "I'm loving this!"

The "this" he's referring to is the first 10 minutes of American Hustle, and he's right. The opening is not only engaging, it's hilarious. Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), and directed by David O. Russell, American Hustle is a fictional story, inspired and very loosely based on the Abscam scandal of 1978. The actual scandal took place over the course of several years, but after a bit of research, it seems just as entertaining as the film. Something about the FBI, a fake Sheik, casinos, Camden, NJ and con men – which, as it turns out, is the plot of American Hustle.

It's the story of Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (played by a fantastically overweight Christian Bale and a dripping-with-sex Amy Adams), two con artists who connect with each other, fall in love, start a long con, are caught, and are forced to work with the wild FBI agent, Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper). And despite it's length, it is pure entertainment. One part Goodfellas, one part Casino, and one part Saturday Night Fever, with well-styled characters, entertaining twists, an amazing art department, and one fantastic cast.

While I’m not surprised they would want to work on this film, I’m amazed that this cast all got to be in it. It has just about everyone. Bale sells the hell out of being con man from the Bronx. Amy Adams plays the angle we saw in Russell's The Fighter – hard and sultry with a soft underbelly. Jeremy Renner steps out of his normal action hero and plays the sweet but crooked New Jersey mayor. Cooper's DeMaso is a force to be reckoned with, but, like a late-night informercial, that's not all, folks. Louis C.K, Robert de Niro, and three or four people you know as "Hey, it's that guy" all get screen time. But perhaps the best of them all is Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Rosalyn Rosenthal.

Rosalyn is Irving's bitter wife and mother to their child. She's stuck at home with their son, in the dark about Irving's business, and his longterm love affair. But despite her character’s place, she gets some of the best moments on screen, several crucial B story actions that make A story waves, and best dialogue in the film. At one point, she describes their marriage as, "We fight and we fuck." It's quick. It's powerful. And it presents an amazingly clear picture of their last few years, and without a ton of voiceover.

The catch here is that with all of this entertaining going on, there's not a lot of room left for developing depth. Instead, we're forced to sit through an extremely long, backstory-laden first act, filled with unnecessary setup that comes very close to pulling you out of the fantastic setup they worked so hard to achieve. Each lead gets their own voice over, and while I have no problem with VOs, (which American Hustle uses a lot of), I have a problem with lazy VOs, and these see-and-say tales of their youth, how they got into the life of crime, and what they'd like to achieve become longwinded quickly.  In voiceover, we're told Christian Bale breaks windows for his dad's company, and what do we see? A young Irving breaking windows. We're told Amy Adams’ character gets a job in New York, and what do we see but Sydney Prosser interviewing and getting the job. And for as much time as they take up, they are quickly forgotten as the story pushes on into the second act.

What the first act does well, though, is set up the love story between Irving and Sydney – an adorable romance in the middle of all this crime. When Bradley Cooper's spirit, vitality, and perfect bone structure show up for complications, you're enthralled, but you're still firmly in the fat, glued-on hair Irving camp.

At it's heart, American Hustle is the age old story of two guys and a girl with its own twist: the cop, the criminal, and the con artist that came between them. There are twists and turns aplenty to keep you entertained, but when the end is near, you're certainly ready for it to arrive. We're told that "the art of survival is a story that never ends." Of course, by that point, you’re thinking, "Come on, already."

But when it comes down to it, it's entertaining as hell, funny, sharp, and keeps me looking forward to David O. Russell's next work.