If you were approaching David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” due to an abiding interest in the American ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it would behoove you to remember that Russell’s film was originally titled “American Bullshit,” and it’s packed with plenty of that. While Russell’s film is ostensibly centered on the scandal – it opens with a title card confessing that “Some of this actually happened” – it’s far more preoccupied with the interpersonal relationships of the wild characters that participated in said scandal (and the loads of BS that was exchanged between them). With an outstanding cast that includes the likes of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, that preoccupation is nothing to sniff at (and yes, there is plenty of surreptitious sniffing in the feature), but while “American Hustle” succeeds when it comes to casting and characters, it’s dragged down by a murky and poorly-paced narrative.
At its heart, “American Hustle” is about hearts – two, really – that of Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams), a pair of con artists who meet at a party and start the process of wooing each other without missing a beat. Irving has grown up a con artist, the son of a glassmaker who went around smashing windows to drum up business for his dad, though he’s tried to keep things straight with some legit businesses. That line of work doesn’t really suit him, however, and when he meets the stunning Sydney, he’s been spending far more time with his illegal enterprises, like loan-sharking and counterfeit art dealing. Sydney similarly grew up trying to be someone else, and while she’s firmly entrenched in the “fake it until you make it” line of thinking, she opens up her true self to Irv almost against her will.
The pair’s love story unfolds swiftly and snappily, with Russell both reveling in their affection and poking fun at our cinematic perception of romance (the pair dance across Park Ave. in a particularly ill-advised series of steps that can’t help but feel both lovely and totally insane). Both natural cons, Irving and Sydney succeed in criminal business together (Sydney’s classy-sounding put-on British accent and feminine wiles certainly complement Irving’s tough-talking business chatter), and just as it seems that everything is going swimmingly, we’re hit with a double whammy – Irving is married, and both Sydney and Irv have been pinched by the FBI.
“The FBI” in this case is Bradley Cooper, deliciously over-the-top deranged and dedicated as agent Richie DiMaso, who promises his newly trapped cons a deal – get us four other criminals, and we’ll let you go. Cue hijinks?
“American Hustle” should be Russell’s punchiest film yet – it certainly has all the pieces in place, from solid talent to an intriguing storyline to borderline perfect costumes and sets – but the end result falls flat more than once, and its sagging middle is only saved by its enjoyable characters. Narratively, “American Hustle” is all over the map, and while Russell harnesses some major zip and pizzazz when it comes the film’s first fifteen minutes and its final sequences, most everything between moves along without much coherent flow or consistent excitement. Russell utilizes a few techniques to keep the narrative of his and Eric Singer’s script pumping (trading voiceovers between Bale, Adams, and Cooper is inspired, though it’s not used nearly enough) and even reveals a few twists in the process, but it’s not enough to fully engage in the film’s complicated and unsatisfying story. Most of “American Hustle” puts a premium on style and sparkle over substance. At least it can deliver on that (and in spades), as the time period of the film essentially serves as its own character, and one that does not disappoint in the slightest – Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs, Judy Becker’s overall production design, and the entire coterie of hair stylists and make-up artists are all near-revelatory and exceedingly well-executed. “American Hustle” has plenty to recommend it for entertainment value alone, but if audiences are simply looking for the best-outfitted film of the year, the buck very firmly stops here.
However, “American Hustle” is truly a showcase for talents and characters and what happens when these two elements meet. The film’s greatest asset is that it’s positively bursting with colorful characters that are so engaging that they nearly make up for its slack story.
Amy Adams is outstanding as the sexy, dangerous, and very complicated Sydney, tasked with flitting between the sensitive Syd and the calmly collected “Edith Greensly,” her amusingly executed British alter ego. “American Hustle” can be big and flashy, but Adams’ performance is packed with plenty of subtle facial expressions and telling body language, and she is the one graced with the most nuance. On the other side of the coin is a positively unleashed Jennifer Lawrence as Irv’s delightfully bonkers wife Roslyn. Russell’s direction has so far proven fortuitous for Lawrence – after all, he did direct her to her first Oscar – but he also seems adept at getting the actress to tap into something primal and fierce that’s also still just dead funny. Jennifer Lawrence is the last person who needs a breakout role these days, but her Roslyn marries “unhinged” with “entertaining” in a wholly unique manner, and it’s only a shame we don’t see more of her.
It’s particularly refreshing to see Christian Bale having what looks to be genuine fun in a role, particularly after his recent turns as the very morose Bruce Wayne in “The Dark Knight” franchise and the thoroughly dour Russell Baze in “Out of the Furnace.” Bale seems to relish his role, truly “from the feet up,” even making his frequent hairpiece adjustments seem zippy and fun. Cooper too appears to have had a fantastic time as the fast-talking and deeply weird Richie, and he handily delivers some of the best moments of the entire film.
Despite populating his film with a number of multi-faceted and compelling characters, Russell does stumble when it comes to Jeremy Renner’s role as Mayor Carmine Polito, one of the “baddies” at the center of the scandal. While the four principal roles in the film are reasonably complex and rounded out, Polito is portrayed as some sort of above-the-law angel, and that lack of shading is jarring.
While “American Hustle” disappoints from a story standpoint and fails its perceived status as a worthwhile Oscar contender, it still satisfies on the strength of its wholly entertaining cast of characters and visually appealing look and feel. It may not leave much of a mark upon first blush, but its bold highlights seem engineered to ensure decades of fans yelling out about “science ovens” and hoping that someone will recognize such brilliance.
SCORE: 7.2 / 10