It's probably disingenuous to claim Christian Bale has never had any "fun" during his performances. I'm sure he must extract some pleasure from what he does for a living, because he seems like the type of guy who would just do something else if he hated acting. (I feel fairly certain Christian Bale's not in this racket for the fame.)
To that end, there are scenes in a movie like "The Fighter" where it would be easy to assume Bale is having a good time, even while playing such a complicated and disturbed character. But that’s the thing: Dicky Eklund is disturbed. (He's a drug addict.) A lot of the characters that Bale has played as an adult are disturbed. (I'll resign to the fact that Jack Kelly in “Newsies” is not very disturbed.) Bale's Bruce Wayne has a public persona of "normal," but that guy puts on a bat costume and fights crime. This is not normal behavior. Bale's characters, in fact, thrive on abnormal behavior. That's why it's so remarkable to watch Bale play someone who is as comfortable in his own skin as Irving Rosenfeld is in "American Hustle."
The opening scene of "American Hustle" -- David O. Russell's loose interpretation of the Abscam scandal -- finds Bale's Rosenfeld in front of a mirror, decked out in late-'70s appropriate wardrobe, making sure that his combover-toupee combination is just right. He's like a sleazy Arthur Fonzarelli. But Rosenfeld's secret is just how confident he is -- confident enough to woo his partner in crime, Sydney (Amy Adams) and the woman who just happens to be his wife (Jennifer Lawrence). Bale isn't playing a guy with deep, dark emotional problems; he's playing a guy who just looks like he's got deep, dark emotional problems. This just might be the most confident guy Bale has ever played, who is not secretly a vigilante or serial killer.
The Abscam scandal was a highly questionable sting operation run by the FBI in the late '70s that resulted in seven members of U.S. Congress being convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for favorable business laws. Also, the mob was involved, because of course the mob was involved in something as shady as this.
Bale's Rosenfeld, along with Adams' Sydney Prosser, is a small-time con artist who is roped into what eventually turns into Abscam by an FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso is quite the character himself –- over the course of the film, we see him using miniature curlers in an effort to artificially curl his hair, and watch him slam a telephone over the head of his direct supervisor at the FBI after a request is turned down. (I won't ruin the surprise of who plays DiMaso’s boss, if you don't already know.)
So, yes, combine the FBI, the mob, a bunch of colorful characters with over-arching storylines heightened by a lot of artistic freedom –- “American Hustle” opens with text that reads "Some of this actually happened" -– and you've got a movie that consciously or unconsciously draws inspiration from "Goodfellas" with a smidgen of "Boogie Nights."
I'm far from the first person to conclude that "American Hustle" is David O. Russell channeling Martin Scorsese. In any other year, in fact, David O. Russell channeling Scorsese would be a good thing for a movie like "American Hustle." Unfortunately, Scorsese has decided to channel Scorsese this year with "The Wolf of Wall Street." (Scorsese's last two films, "Hugo" and "Shutter Island," were departures in the sense that if someone said, "I'm in the mood for a Scorsese movie tonight, it's unlikely that person wants to watch "Hugo.") As I write this, I have not seen "The Wolf of Wall Street," but I do wonder if the average moviegoer will look at "American Hustle" as, if not an imitation, a lesser of two similar types of movies. A type of movie that Scorsese is famous for making. It would be a shame if that happens, because they'll be missing out. (And, selfishly, I want to start quoting "American Hustle" in conversation and have people know what I'm talking about.)
Part of me wants to cite specific examples in order to make my point. The other part doesn't want to risk spoiling the viewing experience. (OK, fine, here’s one: Let's just say there's an out-of-nowhere pseudo performance of "Live or Let Die" performed by Jennifer Lawrence that is worth the price of admission alone.) "American Hustle" may not win many awards in 2013 -- despite its Best Picture win from the New York Film Critics Circle on Tuesday -- but it's probably going to be the film we're all still quoting in 2033.
My biggest complaint about this movie is that it feels long, and at 132 minutes, it is on the long side. I only mention this because it's rare for a movie that I enjoy this much to seem long. Unlike a movie like "Goodfellas," the story isn't snappy. "American Hustle" will never be described as a "tight" movie, but the characters and the acting are just so wonderful, I found myself just wanting to spend more time with them to see what these crazy folk might do next –- even though, yes, it did feel like I had spent a lot of time with them. It's kind of like a Bruce Springsteen concert: Yeah, that was a long concert, but who's going to complain if Bruce comes back out to play “Rosalita”?
This all brings us back to Christian Bale. Amy Adams is terrific and Bradley Cooper is on the top of his game here -– honestly, I don’t think Cooper has ever been better. It would be incorrect to say that about Bale, only because Bale has had much more challenging roles than this in the past, but he's the glue that keeps this story connected. This is Bale being charming, while wearing ugly makeup. And, no, this doesn’t happen if Bale’s not having a good time under all of that makeup. After playing so many tortured souls, it's nice to know that, this time, he at least appears to be enjoying his job this time.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.