David O. Russell's American Hustle opens on the wretched sight of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) crawling out of a disheveled hotel bed, belly sagging over his pants, bald head peeking through thin skeins of hair. What follows is a bit of demented primping, as the aging con artist struggles to whip up the presentable illusion of a full coif. There's nothing novel here, either in the casual cruelty afforded by Russell toward a grotesquely conceived character or the facility of the metaphor he's presenting, but what's unexpected is how the scene turns out: Through a motley combination of glue, dyed cotton, and elbow grease, Irving manages to approximate a full head of hair, an unlikely ruse whose success is mirrored by this manic, surprisingly entertaining film.
Coming off two instances of overwrought, artfully gritty Oscar bait, Russell responds with a similarly conceived spectacle that actually works, mostly because it plays its material toward farce rather than tragedy or uplift. Where The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook used loaded issues of familial dysfunction and mental illness to establish rough-and-tumble bona fides which balanced out their pat conclusions, American Hustle only magnifies its initial disorder as it progresses, building into a maelstrom of shifting allegiances and dueling plots. This is a film that confirms all previous issues with Russell's loud, jittery direction, yet does so within a madcap milieu that suits the story he's trying to tell, serving to efficiently muddle the outlines of a continually developing series of puzzles.
Reveling in the potential for gaudy dress-up and shouty overacting afforded by the baroque disco-era setting, the film charts Rosenfeld's exploits as the small-time hustler teams up with partner and girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who enlivens his operation by posing as a posh British heiress. Things start to get out of hand after the pair is first busted for fraud, then strong-armed into service by ambitious F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso uses them to run a basic con on unsuspecting businessmen, before quickly surrendering to the same unchecked greed that motivates all the shady operators depicted here. Going over the head of his supervisor, he chases after bigger and bigger targets, ending up with an international scheme involving fake Arab sheiks, prominent politicians, and dangerous mobsters.
Formally ostentatious and unrepentantly messy, the film manages to implicitly convey the overdriven, coked-up confusion that many '70s period pieces make painfully overt. Every overstated camera swoop and nonsensical body-part zoom functions as both a further expression of directorial agitation and yet another red herring, slapping a visual analogue onto a story already loaded with false clues, double-dealing, and outright lies. Originally titled American Bullshit, the film ends up as a compulsive, often intensely obvious study of unbalanced personalities, all engaged in some kind of desperate masquerade, all caught up in the frantic push and pull between chaos and control.
There's nothing especially substantial about Russell's erratic presentation of this shaggy-dog story, but the combined energy of his madcap style and Eric Singer's well-constructed script is satisfying, making for the sort of unsentimental absurdist playground seen in Three Kings or I Heart Huckabees. In this atmosphere, the abuse of characters for cheap gags and the garish parade of outfits and hairstyles become just another disreputable facet of a film fixated entirely on the importance of surfaces. The same goes for the reckless shooting style, with its insistent, annoying habit of making a muddle of the widescreen frame. This also ends up serving some actual purpose, conveying the total lack of order that defines these undercover operations and backroom dealings, which might seem too efficient if presented in neat, precisely plotted compositions.
It's befitting this unruly approach that American Hustle becomes more about a culture of diffuse deceit than any of the hollow characters it presents. No one is redeemed, and though some get a happy ending, these conclusions leave them as ensnared within hopeless, outward-projecting fantasies as they were at the start. Based very loosely on the outlines of the F.B.I.'s ABSCAM operation, the film draws energy from the real-life particulars in the same way that it leeches off a familiar New Hollywood vibe, playing up the genre's implicit distrust of authority and jazzy, profanity-spiked dialogue as further signs of an all-encompassing disorder rooted in a frenzied devotion to keeping up appearances. All these roughly handed tropes get pushed into a sweaty, often derivative jumble that, like that sleazy combover, somehow ends up as convincing.