I think the scene that finally secured American Hustle a place on my Top 10 list was the one in which conman Irving’s (Christian Bale) wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), goes on and on about her fingernail topcoat at a dinner. Chatting up Dolly (Elizabeth Röhm), the wife of soon-to-be-swindled Camden mayor Carmine (Jeremy Renner), Rosalyn raves about the topcoat’s contradictory virtues, saying it’s “sweet and sour, rotten and delicious—like flowers, but with garbage.” She “can’t get enough of it.” To watch this scene is to witness David O. Russell not only reclaim his former, gonzo glory, but wholeheartedly own the superficial tackiness of his vision. Sure, this is a film about countless layers of fakery, and the notion of a topcoat—a mask—being both vile and alluring has definite thematic implications. But American Hustle, marvelously, isn’t hung up on such sobering ideas. The topcoat speech is more a megaphone announcement of tone, and of a director finally ditching the safety net of Oscar pandering, which he used to entrance voters with the falsely offbeat The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. And still, he’s going to net those votes nonetheless, as there’s just enough delicious here to make the rotten palatable for traditionalists.
In a year replete with great trash (see also: Passion, Only God Forgives, and I’m So Excited), American Hustle is the crown princess of the bunch, set loose to be as gaudily bonkers as it wants to be without over-complicating, or diverting focus from, its rather loaded narrative. So, with gaudy, trashy surfaces in mind, let’s begin by saying that the film is likely to land Oscar nods for both Costume Design and Makeup and Hairstyling. Ask around, and what many viewers will likely discuss is the purposefully showboat-y looks of American Hustle’s characters. For months, the plunging necklines of Amy Adams and Lawrence’s ’70s-era dresses have been gracing the pages of entertainment and fashion rags alike, and the men’s duds have gotten their share of attention as well. Even more conversation-prompting is all that hair, which each character rocks in a distinctive fashion. Lawrence’s blonde tendrils are piled up on her head like a golden load of laundry, Bale has that in-your-face hairpiece to contend with, Bradley Cooper uses curlers to get his coif right, and Adams has the most expressive and character-complimenting locks this side of Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color. Whether Russell makes all of this era-specific or overly costume-y is irrelevant; the point is it’s utterly memorable.
A certified lock in the Supporting Actress race, Lawrence is the one cast member bound to add another nomination to her tally (the five lead stars—Lawrence, Adams, Bale, Cooper, and Renner—are all prior winners or nominees). A lot of factors will secure this: Lawrence is the most traditionally entertaining in her comic-relief role, her It Girl status shows no signs of diminishing, she’s an anointed Academy favorite, she thoroughly nails the part, and, most of all, she’s the showiest of the group. The Supporting Actress field is famously a home for ladies going over the top, and while I’d nominate Lawrence myself, it’s irksome to think that she’ll get more notice for being the loudest in the room than for being an astonishingly precocious talent who knows the bone marrow of the women she plays. More irksome still is that Adams, who plays Irving’s mistress and conning partner, Sydney, will likely be overlooked in the Best Actress race. That’s perhaps because Adams isn’t as showy as Lawrence, but probably because the five slots here are all but claimed by vets Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. Even more shrewd in her understanding of whom she’s embodying, Adams delivers what is bar-none the best performance of her career, expertly scouring virtually every emotional corner an actor could hope to, and embracing the full breadth of the film’s “garbage” while still somehow emerging with a multi-dimensional woman of grace, danger, and vulnerability. Adams’s and Lawrence’s are two of the best female characters and performances of 2013, but sadly, only the latter seems destined for a nod.
Still, odds are Lawrence won’t be the lone American Hustle castmate vying for gold. Playing shady F.B.I. agent Richie to the hilt, and presenting him as Rosalyn’s male counterpart in terms of sheer volume, Cooper seems a rather safe bet for Supporting Actor recognition, especially since that race still has a lot of wiggle room (if you ask me, the only locks at this stage are Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, and Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips). I’d put similar faith in the Original Screenplay by Russell and Eric Singer, which has lapped up citations from the Golden Globes, the BFCA, and a handful of critics’ groups, and seems unstoppable for its mere aptness in this oddball-loving category. I absolutely wouldn’t count out nods for Editing or Art Direction, but those are two fields in which American Hustle seems to lie just outside the surefire slate. The film’s nomination tally will likely top out at seven, and though you didn’t hear it here first, those nominations will include one for revived Director Russell and one for his delicious, sweet-and-sour mess of a Picture.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, David O. Russell; Best Original Screenplay; Best Supporting Actress, Jennifer Lawrence; Best Supporting Actor, Bradley Cooper; Best Makeup and Hairstyling; Best Costume Design.
Possibilities: Best Actress, Amy Adams; Best Film Editing; Best Art Direction.
Shouldn’t Be Overlooked: Best Cinematography.