In the opening scene of American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell, 2013) small time huckster Irving Rosenfeld carefully, methodically, laboriously prepares his hair for the coming day. He twists and curls the long knot of hair that is his comb over, pastes it to the top of his head with spray-on black glue, positions it carefully, and is ready. This is a wonderful scene of vanity, embarrassment, self-consciousness, and self-creation. Were there no other scene in the film, I would prize it for this one. The hairstyles in this film are an eccentric and forceful extension of the personalities of the characters they adorn. The hair stylists (the credits list fifteen of them) should have won an award. If there isn’t an Academy Award for hairstyle, it should have been created for American Hustle.
Christian Bale, who played Batman in a trio of films, in this one plays so much against character that you have to strain and squirm to realize that he is the actor playing Rosenfeld. The same is true of Jeremy Renner, whom I didn’t recognize until the film was nearly over.
Everyone in this immensely entertaining film is a hustler and self-creator. Everyone is running some kind of scheme. Even when Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) fall in love, they’re still suspicious of each other, or at least they appear to be, and then we see that their suspicion plays into yet another scheme. The word “American” in the title suggests that the activity on display here is a national characteristic, emblematic of something deep in the heart of the American experience. We long for wealth, accomplishment, a position of significance, yet we long as well for someone who can see through all the deceptive pretension to the inner core of who we are, and who doesn’t care what she finds there.