‘American Hustle’ builds character from the scalp down

Bradley Cooper, left, as Richie DiMaso and Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld in "American Hustle."
(Francois Duhamel / AP Photo / Sony - Columbia Pictures)

At first I thought it was merely a result of not having had to run a comb across my own scalp since the first Bush administration that I found David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” so follicularly fascinating — just watching the trailers I was mesmerized by Christian Bale’s intricately disastrous comb-over, Bradley Cooper’s poodle-curl perm and the tonsorial tower of power that somehow made Jeremy Renner look like the long-lost brother of SNL’s Rob Schneider.

But after watching the entire movie — a 1978 period piece loosely inspired by the ABSCAM sting — I knew it was more than a case of hair envy or ‘70s-appropriate window dressing (the way, say, Ben Affleck’s shaggy dog ‘do was in “Argo”).

No, the cadre of regrettable hairstyles in “Hustle,” besides helping distance us from the handsome actors beneath, provides valuable insight into the key players in the story. The filmmakers built the characters, you might say, from the scalp down. This becomes apparent barely a few minutes into the movie with an awkward, wince-inducing, coif-smacking scene which I won’t spoil beyond noting that some might consider it full-on hair-style homicide.


The movie’s hirsute highlights include:

Irving Rosenfeld’s Criminal Cover-up

Sure, Mel Weinberg — the real-life guy Christian Bale’s con-man character is based on — sported a pretty unconvincing comb-over of his own, but the film takes things to another level altogether. “American Hustle’s” Rosenfeld is a grifter so duplicitous that even his hair is pretending to be something it’s not. The rub, of course, is that despite the painstakingly crafted artifice, the only person Rosenfeld’s (possibly) fooling is himself.

The Tightly Wound Richie DiMaso

Pretty-boy Bradley Cooper, in his role as pretty-boy FBI agent Richie DiMaso, comes across as a short-fused powder keg — a spring as tightly coiled as the pin curlers he sports in one scene. That image of DiMaso in curlers speaks volumes about him — he’s into himself, he’s into the way he looks, he thinks he’s destined for bigger and better things — and he’s not about to just follow the rules and accept the hand that’s been dealt to him. He’s willing to chase greatness – and do what it takes – to craft his own destiny. (I can’t verify this, but if you add in those worn by Amy Adams’ and Jennifer Lawrence’s characters, “Hustle” may well have the highest on-screen curler count since the “Beauty School Dropout” number from “Grease.”)

Carmine Polito, the polished pol

In his portrayal of Camden, N.J. Mayor Carmine Polito, Jeremy Renner’s hair is swept out and up into a high-flying style that’s equal parts Rod Blagojevich and latter-years Elvis Presley, with a touch of and Angelo Errichetti (the ABSCAM-stung politician on which Renner’s character was based). It’s the kind of coif that’s rock-solid, an impeccable veneer with nary a hair out of place. It telegraphs confidence, demands respect and shouts “I’m in charge here” all at once.


Standard-Issue Stoddard Thorsen

Interestingly, Louis C.K. , who plays DiMaso’s FBI boss Stoddard Thorsen, sports a no-nonsense balding American male haircut that doesn’t look markedly different from the actor-comedian’s off-screen modern-day ‘do. Which makes him an accidental master of the timeless hairstyle or so far behind that the pendulum of men’s hairstyle trends has swung back to meet him.

Either way, he was definitely groomed for the part.


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