Genre: Crime, Drama
Directed by: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence
“Some of this actually happened,” wryly states David O. Russell’s latest attempt to woo the Academy Award voters. The “this” that the director refers to is the 70s/80s Abscam sting, which saw the FBI team-up with a convicted con artist to target corrupt public officials. However, American Hustle seems more concerned with showing the excesses of the era than of dramatizing one of the Bureau’s zaniest plans. Borrowing his structure from Scorsese’s Goodfellas and his style from Affleck’s Argo, O. Russell creates a purely cinematic experience that is both magnificent and meandering in equal measure.
Having spent a large portion of the last decade donning Batman’s Cowl, it’s certainly a shock to see a pot-bellied and combed over Christian Bale as the establishing shot to O. Russell’s tale. He plays Irving Rosenfeld, a professional con artist who, along with his sexy partner Sydney Prosser, is forced to work with FBI agent Richie DiMaso to bring down corrupt politician Carmine Polito and his associates that operate in New Jersey.
As we’ve saw in last year’s Silver Linings, David O. Russell is a man more comfortable focusing on characters rather than story and here he utilizes his talent to explore a group of unsympathetic characters with both intelligence and humor. It helps that he’s managed to gather a cast comprised of the best actors to grace his filmography to date. The sizzling chemistry between Bale and Amy Adam’s Sydney electrifies the film’s opening third. His confidence mixed with her seductiveness makes for a thoroughly engaging central relationship that effortlessly carries the film; you may not agree with their actions, but you can’t help admiring their steely determination.
Along with an underused Jennifer Lawrence, playing Irving’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn, O. Russell has great fun exemplifying the excesses of the 70s. This is a time period where flashy suits and retro hairstyles were mandatory; the superb costume, hair & makeup, juxtaposed with a timeless soundtrack of 70s classics creating an effectively authentic setting for this tale of crime and debauchery.
It’s when the film’s hustle, centerpiece to the plot, inevitably pushes to the forefront of the narrative that the whole thing begins to suffer. Like all cons, it begins to leave you feeling more and more bewildered the further it develops. While the confusion may be intended in part, the growing levels of ambivalence in the plot eventually becomes more and more vexing, gradually slackening the pace of the film’s generous running time.
Then there’s Bradley Cooper, whose perfectly permed FBI agent spends the majority of the film either repetitively shouting at Bale and seedily leering at Adams. The main problem with Cooper’s role is that it does little to enhance a story already overflowing with different personalities. All Richie really serves to do is further complicate a love triangle that would be more interesting if it spent more time with Lawrence’s gloriously erratic Rosalyn and less time with this overly infatuated lawman.
These notable problems with the narrative are what give that feeling of disappointment as the credits begin to role on American Hustle. David O. Russell certainly has a great time capturing the greed and glam of the 70s and his central duo shine bright when they are on the screen together. Unfortunately, as the plot further drives the film, it begins to collapse, becoming, like the con itself, messy and frustrating.