Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Elisabeth Röhm | Written by David O. Russell, Eric Singer | Directed by David O. Russell
Truth is a holy relic many artists seek. Not necessarily truth through representation of facts, rather the truth in seeking those universal principals that transcend all cultures. In David O. Russell’s latest film he plays with truth in the very first frame with the tagline, “Some of this Actually Happened”.
American Hustle is very loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the 1970’s that eventually brought down a number of corrupt politicians. In many ways it feels like David O. Russell’s love letter to Martin Scorsese with its intense infusion of period style, brash characters that are full of life, use of first person narration, and a heavy reliance on inspired musical choices. What it lacks is that sharp edge Scorsese so elegantly brings. Russell is a little too precious with his characters and is hesitant to enter any truly dark or twisted territory. This lack of conviction hinders American Hustle from being an all-time gem, but due in large part to a stellar cast it is a film that is certainty worth your time.
That cast includes some of today’s biggest and brightest stars including Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a man who looks like the creepy uncle we all fear we have. In the month of December alone Bale has shown why he is such a versatile actor. In Out of the Furnace he was a subdued force that internalized every emotion. Here Bale is a loud obnoxious worm of person that exudes extreme confidence—a con artist that looks like a con artist. Actors often take this type of role and become a cartoon you can never take seriously. Bale gives it a form gravitas few are capable of achieving. He is big in the right moments, and Russell gives him enough smaller moments to show his vulnerability. Based on appearance he is not someone who looks like he could land a woman who looks like Amy Adams, but he has that impetuous personality that draws certain types of people in.
Adams plays Sydney Prosser a woman who has the tenacity and intelligence to get what she wants. While Bale was fantastic, Adams may have been even better. Russell gives her a strong character to work with. One that is layered and unendingly complicated. In return Adams gives a performance that is nuanced in every which way. She has a seductiveness to her that is overpowering. Her control is obvious, however she is not invulnerable. There is a pain to her plan of attack.
After she joins up with Irving she helps bring his operation to an entirely new level. By donning a fake British accent she helps Irving fool people into throwing their money into a fake investment firm. This racket grows so large it draws the attention of the FBI agent Richie DiMaso, who is played by Bradley Cooper. DiMaso sets up a sting operation to shut down their little ponzi scheme. Instead of throwing both of them in jail he plans on using their expertise to bring down even bigger fish in the criminal market.
Last year when Cooper teamed up with Russell in Silver Linings Playbook he gave the performance of his career. This time around he is only a supporting player but still shows his strength as an actor. Richie Dimaso shares many characteristics with Cooper’s character from ‘Silver Linings’. Both have an act first ask questions later type of attitude that puts them in situations that are over their head. Both are continuously searching for something more but aren’t really sure what that more consists of exactly. Where Richie Dimaso differs is in the area of likeability. In a film filled with con artists, members of the mob, and dirty politicians the FBI agent is the most unlikable person. His headstrong determination is what continually gets them into trouble.
That motivation morphs an operation to land some small time crooks into a darker and more perilous world ruled by dangerous people. Atlantic City becomes the focal point as Mayor Carmine Polito is trying to rebuild it to its former glory. Polito is a man with good intentions but dirty actions. He may be the only character in the entire film that is not solely out for himself. Jeremy Renner was an odd casting choice for Polito. It is a straight-laced character that is purposely bland, which is not the type of role Renner is known for. That lack of familiarity may be why he never feels comfortable in the role.
One person who appears to be comfortable in any role she plays is Jennifer Lawrence. Here she gives another wiser than her years performance that will go down as one of the year’s best. She plays DiMaso’s wife who is a constant thorn in his side. Her unhinged personality makes her the unpredictable piece that could bring this entire operation to a screeching halt.
Russell displays great skill in handling all these performances. On a character standpoint the script is strong. All the major players are fleshed out and fully formed. Where the film runs into issues is in the area of plotting. There are a lot of moving pieces that it can never entirely corral. It has a lack of focus as if it’s not sure where exactly it wants to go next. Frequently it will go off and get lost in a tangent of subplots and side stories. As the film concludes it forcefully attempts to tie all this threads together but it never completely accomplishes that goal.
I find I have similar issues with American Hustle as I did with Silver Linings Playbook. Both flirt with some perverse subject matter but approach it in a tame manner. They are extremely entertaining and full of laughs, but the drama does not have as much weight as it should. Both merely feel too safe for the material. It would be akin to making a movie about a serial killer that doesn’t kill anyone. The key is to be more daring without being gratuitous.
Now the film is not without stakes. One moment in particular will go down as one of my favorite scenes of the year. An impromptu meeting at a casino is set up perfectly as a mere unexpected sentence asked by an unexpected guest raises the tension instantly. So much was done with so little—a brilliant moment powered by some remarkable actors.
American Hustle is an engaging story bathed in seventies sleek and sweaty style. It comes alive with a sultry soundtrack of rock n’ roll hits and disco beats. While the final product is less than the sum of its parts, it is still a solid piece of work.