Christian Bale has transformed himself in all sorts of ways, but his turn as Irving Rosenfeld is something else again. It's such a striking transformation that the camera can't tear away from Bale's body throughout the opening scene of American Hustle. His pasty beer gut juts forward proudly, suggesting chronic constipation. We watch him construct a mind-boggling comb-over that another character describes as "elaborate." He dresses like a clown, all loud prints and ascots and wide lapels and materials that can't support even the barest suggestion of a natural fiber. But Bale instinctually finds the dignity in Rosenfeld, a two-bit hustler from the Bronx. At least he's got a realistic sense of scale. Rosenfeld sells counterfeit artwork and scams people out of a few thousand dollars at a time. Nothing grandiose, nothing fancy.
Bale leads a cast of excellent actors who are becoming regulars in David O. Russell productions: Bradley Cooper is Richie DiMaso, a jittery FBI agent with a tightly wound perm; Jennifer Lawrence is a lively young mother who knows her big mouth will be the thing that keeps people paying attention to her long after her looks are gone. Robert De Niro makes a short but spectacular appearance. And some new names are added to the Russell Regular Role Call: Louis C.K. and Michael Peña have small but important parts, Jeremy Renner plays the good-hearted goombah mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and most notably, Amy Adams stars as Rosenfeld's partner in crime, an ambitious con artist named Sydney Prosser.
It's hard to pull off a con movie these days, when the impulse to get too elaborate has taken over. Sometimes big and dumb works (Ocean's Eleven) and sometimes it doesn't (Matchstick Men). But Hustle shares Rosenfeld's good sense of perspective, even as its cons enlarge to contain several reversals of fortune and shifts in scope and size. The movie withholds pertinent information about characters until just the right moment, and it knows how to show its hand before things get too complicated. A good con pulls you close so you can't see it's hiding something important from you; American Hustle works exactly like that.
Some of Hustle's more lavish embraces don't work. The wardrobe and hairstyles are so 1970s period-piece absurdist that they pull you out of the film. And the one thing Jennifer Lawrence can't do, it seems, is maintain a believable New Jersey accent for more than two seconds at a time. All the noise, both from the loudmouthed actors and the gaudy period detail, can get overwhelming.
But with its big-talking swagger, its period-piece glamour, and its huge, dirty-dealing cast, Hustle feels like a response to Scorsese's classic crime films, only built to a less epic, more human scale. These are the characters you see running around in the background of Goodfellas or Casino, trying to scrape together a living while the fat cats live out their huge Greek tragedies. Russell packs the film with popular music, but while Scorsese leans on the iconic rock of the Rolling Stones, Russell prefers the glitzy letdown of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."
The interplay between Bale and Adams is Hustle's sturdy spine. Prosser and Rosenfeld's romance is unlikely, but their relationship feels believable. In their quest to con everyone else out of their money, the pair must try to forge some sort of honesty together. You can't bullshit a bullshitter.