American Hustle’s opening shots are of Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale, putting together his hairdo. “Putting together” is indeed the right phrase, since it involves glue and hair not native to Bale’s scalp. Even just having read that description, you can probably see how hard it will be for director David O. Russell to now convince you that Rosenfeld is a schmuck you ought to care about or even like, but that’s what Russell does.
The comb-over is just the beginning of what makes Rosenfeld hard to relate to, not to mention virtually everyone else in the movie. Set in the late ‘70s (and based on the Abscam scandal), Hustle’s dated fashions and hairstyles come across as kitsch. For the females, there’s the blown-out hair and the plunging necklines. (On Facebook someone quipped, “I heard the original title was actually ‘Amy Adams’ Boobs.’”) As for Rosenfeld, besides his “elaborate” hair regimen, he covers his paunch with florid suits and waistcoats; his upper chest is either partially revealed or covered by a silky ascot. Basically, he looks like the poster child for aging-male self-deception.
Bradley Cooper’s ‘70s flashback is pretty muted in comparison, being limited to curled hair and more generic menswear misfires. Bale’s transformation is much more complete, and he has the natural advantage in that he isn’t handsome in the big-eyed way that Cooper or, say, George Clooney are. For the purposes of appearing like a creep, Bale’s less conventionally attractive looks are an asset that make it easier for him to fade into his character; whatever the reason exactly, it’s damn hard to remember that that this guy was Batman any time in the last decade. Cooper’s acting is great, but his looks and complexion are too good to truly blend in with the scummies.
Anyway, it’s those outmoded looks, along with a story about (quasi-)organized crime and the occasional voiceover, that make American Hustle feel distinctly too close to Goodfellas at certain moments. I suppose you could read it as homage, but during the voiceovers, I had the passing impression that Hustle was just derivative.
Even if it were — and I don’t think it really is for reasons I’ll get to in a sec — it’s still sort of satisfying to see people dressed in the retro equivalent of clown costumes. I mean, if you’re going to be derivative, Goodfellas is a great place to start, and that’s one of the few real problems with this movie. Keith Phipps, writing for The Dissolve, notes the Goodfellas similarity but rightly gives the movie a pass:
It’s a neat trick that American Hustle pulls off, making a scene in which characters stride through the ’70s to the accompaniment of on-the-nose song choices that might embarrass Flight — starting with Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and pretty much staying that obvious — somehow seem fresh.
And Goodfellas is, I think, actually the wrong movie to compare this to. As I expect most people do, I’ve always taken Scorsese’s classic to be detached from its subjects, working more like a comment on its eponymous fellas than as a way into feeling their ups and downs personally. (I mean, they’re also cold-blooded killers, so it wouldn’t be much fun sympathizing with them anyhow.)
American Hustle, on the other, is about its characters and only succeeds so far as it gets you to experience Amy Adams’ and Bale’s desperation and legitimate desire to run off together. It does succeed, I think, and at something that isn’t much attempted in films on this scale. As in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell seems truly invested in showing us working-class and lower-middle-class America, even if one limited primarily to whites. It’s an America that looks a lot more like the one most people live in than the one depicted by your average Hollywood fare, maybe because it’s easier to relate to your Jerry Maguires than to your Irving Rosenfelds — we’d rather see ourselves in Tom Cruise’s trim young go-getter than Bale’s chubby loser. But when Rosenfeld feels guilt over his deceptions, and we actually feel bad for him, it’s a much bigger win for Russell and much less contrived.
It’s been a pattern in his past few movies (as, I believe, others might well have noted; sorry, I read too many film blogs to cite specifically). Russell has been lauded, I’d say, because he manages to focus on this more common strata of America without romanticizing or unduly lionizing his working-class characters. He’s willing to show them in all their absurd glory, and not just in a cheap shot worthy of a shittier Adam Sandler movie. The Fighter doesn’t pretend that Dicky isn’t odd or that Robert De Niro’s Eagles fan isn’t superstitious in Silver Linings Playbook. But those characters get love and attention, and they’re the ones whose fortunes we follow in their movies.
By giving us an unblinking, less-than-glossy version of people in recovery, people on the fringe, and people with dirt under their nails, I think Russell implies that they are just as worthy of having their eccentricities frankly explored as the Jerry Maguires of cinema are. It’s not just the handsome and shiny people that get to be drawn in detail, but the balding and poorly dressed.