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Review: American Hustle

“Anyone can be confident with a full head of hair. But a confident bald man – there’s your diamond in the rough.” Larry David should know, that glint in his eye, a fortune in the bank, that shiny, smooth cranium, those New York smarts. In “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Larry David plays a version of Larry David but who’s to say where the real Larry starts and the fictional Larry ends? Just how happy are they to be follically challenged? Is it all an elaborate con to make us root for him when we should have our head in our hands, toes curling at that “Larry David Moment.”

Fellow New Yorker and con artist Irving Rosenfeld certainly curbs his enthusiasm for Larry’s hair doctrine. When we first meet Irving in the opening shots of “American Hustle” he is meticulously constructing the world’s greatest comb-over. The year is 1978 and in the free world the hair is king, a Cold War intercontinental missile to obliterate Communism from the face of the hairdressers. Let’s be honest for a moment, being bald in the 70s was tantamount to being un-American.

Irving has the misfortune of hustling in the decade of Farrah Fawcett and John Travolta, their hairstyles human shields against America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. Irving’s Barnet automatically makes him an infiltrator, there’s something suspect in his use of lacquer, he even says, “I’m like the Viet Cong.” Just imagine walking into your favourite fondue party and BAM! Irving ambushes you camouflaged in crushed velvet, pouncing from under his Punji stick wig and then taking you to the cleaners.

Or is that dry cleaners? Irving’s legitimate businesses are fast becoming his sidelines as he embezzles money from desperate investors or sells stolen and fake art. Flashback to a party in Long Island; Irving meets former stripper turned Cosmopolitan employee Sydney Prosser, a woman used to reinventing herself–a woman after his own heart. Sydney becomes Lady Edith Greensley, a high-class hook ready to reel in even more marks. They’re desperately in love; they complete each other, what could possibly pull the rug from off of Irving’s gleaming head?

Marriage. Irving is married to the “Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” a Jersey princess by the name of Rosalyn. Rosalyn’s a force of nature, destroying all mod cons like sun lamps and microwave ovens with her warped choplogic. Irving’s breezy but unreliable narration informs us that for once he did the right thing by marrying Rosalyn and adopting her son. Rosalyn’s a terror all right but just how much of Irving’s bullshit has she put up with over the years?

Events get even worse for Irving and Sydney (or is that Lady Edith?) when FBI agent Richie DiMaso, a mummy’s boy with a ferocious tight perm and an aggressive sense of entitlement, stings them. Richie has the hots for Sydney and puts an offer on the table, help the FBI take down four cases and they’ll avoid prosecution. The problem is Richie is a child in a man’s world, a wide-eyed amateur with a habit of diving headfirst into cases way above his pay grade. Before you can shout “Studio 54” the trio is up to their necks in fake Sheikhs, corrupt politicians and heavy weight mob guys.

Irving constantly refers to a great con artist as being made from“the feet up,” and that’s what director David O. Russell has done with his movie. We know we’re watching “Artfellas” and we’re glad to be there. We allow ourselves to be schmoozed by the sassy dialogue and wowed by hairstyles so dangerous they could double for “The Towering Inferno” and boy do we have a love/hate relationship with those clothes, but that’s just the razzmatazz, the window dressing, the bullshit.

O. Russell like his characters is a shrewd operator, the indie kid who slid under the Hollywood radar and reinvented himself as a genre director. Just take his choice of opening track, “Dirty Work” by “Steely Dan.” On the surface “Dirty Work” is upbeat and cheerful, but like so many of their songs it features wry lyrics about drugs, love affairs and crime. Their work is complex, multi-layered and strives for perfection. Even their moniker is subversive, the name of a dildo in William S Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” Do we ever really know who’s fucking whom over?

“American Hustle” is about perception and deception and as such we shouldn’t buy a goddamn word of it. The movie constantly reminds us that the more we want something, the more we’re told no, the more we want to believe. We like Irving and Sydney, we want them to be smart and sexy and fun, we want to forget that they take people for money and break up marriages, we want the FBI guy to be a dick and Rosalyn not to get clipped by the mob because she can’t keep her trap shut. We want to believe that Irving is that diamond in the rough who grows a conscience at the eleventh hour.

We want to believe we haven’t been taken for a sucker like the other douchebags in the movie. The best part of O. Russell’s scam is that we’ll never know. So we’ll have to be content with Christian Bale’s perfect De Niro impersonation, Amy Adams dining at the redhead top table next to Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, Bradley Cooper’s manic posturing, Jeremy Renner’s “Eraserhead” Mayor and Jennifer Lawrence doing anything she damn well pleases, whether she’s bossing the teens in “The Hunger Games” or stealing movies like “American Hustle” with a flash of her imported nail varnish.