Christian Bale doesn’t do half-measures. Underplaying just isn’t in his blood. Even his characters’ most quotidian actions are injected with penetrating significance, as if his life depends on each of them being completed with exacting rigor — and you can’t blame him because, in most of his movies, his life is in imminent danger.
Casein point: In the very first image of David O. Russell’s new film “American Hustle,” which opens Friday, Bale looks ridiculous yet completely in command. He plays an unctuous, balding loan shark and con artist named Irving Rosenfeld, and for the first few minutes, we watch him silently jigger a horrifying toupee onto his skull, combing the rug over whatever wayward strands of hair remain. Except he’s doing this low comic fodder with meticulous, Baleian intensity, his eyes focused on his goal, like a runner poised at the beginning of a race.
Bale, it’s safe to say, is the least funny thing in this roiling, emotionally grandiose picture, even when the situations he’s involved in are. He seems to be channeling a low-rent Al Pacino whenever he’s not challenging a low-rent Robert De Niro; at any rate he’s almost incapable of playing anything just for laughs, and it works to the film’s advantage, because every good comedy team needs a foil.
His onscreen rival, on the other hand, is such a gifted comic talent that the movie’s tone shifts whenever he enters it. That would be Bradley Cooper, whose ability to draw humor from violent and uncomfortable situations carries over from Russell’s last film, “Silver Linings Playbook.” He plays Richie DiMaso, a fast-talking but insecure FBI agent who captures Irving in a sting operation, then promptly cuts a deal with the con artist to bait white collar fish: the corrupt politicians, powerbrokers and mafiosi who troll the East Coast of the United States.
This story was inspired by the real-life ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s, but don’t expect an exhaustively researched, fact-based biopic. The first words that appear onscreen are “Some of this actually happened.”
Russell is more interested in capturing the ambience of the late ‘70s, both in cinematic style — he revels in dramatic Scorsese-esque camera glides and musical cues, and shoots a color palette of muted taupes and umbers on 35mm film, which itself is becoming a retro format — and in the props and costuming, calling attention to the sideburns, superfluous sunglasses and gaudy jewelry of the period. There’s even a hilarious riff on a new invention called a microwave, which Irving is gifted from his latest patsy, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). They call it a “science oven.”
But Russell is ultimately most taken with matters of the heart, and it’s the women in his movie that complicate matters for the egotistical men, and who most fascinate Russell. He cast two brilliant actresses in subversive parts: Amy Adams is Irving’s partner in bed and in crime, a former stripper whose ability to impersonate an aristocratic Brit boosts Irving’s shady business; and Jennifer Lawrence plays Irving’s estranged wife, a brash sparkplug with the mien of a mob wife and a propensity to burn her house down. Adams has not, to my knowledge, played a character as sexually forward as this before, and she’s never been so alluring. And if Lawrence doesn’t make this movie, she’s easily the best thing in it, a veritable lock for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars next year, barring some underdog triumph.
But ultimately, as witty and smart as Russell and Eric Singer’s screenplay can be — in a voice-over, Lawrence’s character is referred to as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate” — the sum of its parts is almost too familiar, an unwieldy, genre-hopping crime comedy about conners conning conners. It’s “House of Games” if it was shot like “Boogie Nights,” but we’ve seen both movies and their knock-offs plenty of times. There’s an empty slickness to this script’s final destination that undermines the memorable, three-dimensional characters in which we’ve grown invested for the past two hours. “American Hustle” is an engaging ride, to be sure, but don’t be surprised if you feel a tad conned by the time the credits roll.