I may not be a card-carrying member of the David O. Russell fan club, but there are several things you have to give him. He has a knack for creating and developing raw and thoroughly engaging characters. He is also able to put together incredible ensemble casts perfectly in tune with his characters. Both of these strengths are the key reasons why Russell’s new film “American Hustle” works. The movie has several of his same indulgences that don’t always work for me but it’s the characters and performances that makes this film so intriguing.
The movie is set in 1978 and is loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation. It’s a time of good music, big collars, and really bad hair. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist who joins up with and falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The two run a small time but controlled loan scam that is bringing in some nice cash. Things are going well until they are caught up with by an ambitious FBI agent named Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper). But Richie doesn’t want small time cons. He wants the career-boosting big fish. So he forces Irving and Sydney to work for him and entrap bigger targets, namely politicians and government officials.
Irving doesn’t like his circumstances at all. He likes things small and low-key. He also doesn’t like Richie and his constant changing of the rules. He feels that going too big will jeopardize the whole operation. But the biggest threat to their plans may be Irving’s loose cannon wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s loud, volatile, and she knows Irving has a thing for Sydney. That’s a pretty lethal cocktail. Another complication comes in the form of a New Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He’s a popular and seemingly well-meaning guy who develops a friendship with Irving. The trouble is he becomes one of Richie’s prime targets.
This interwoven web of ‘who’s conning who’ could have been an utter mess but it actually plays out in an entertaining and fairly cohesive way. Much of that is due to the sharp script penned by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. It’s not perfect. There are lulls along the way and I couldn’t help but feel that they stretched the story to its limits. There are also a few glaring questions that remain unanswered. They don’t cripple the story the way major plot holes do, but they did stand out to me. Still, in terms of delivering a slick and stylish story, Russell and Singer pull it off.
But getting back to a previous thought, neither the direction nor the script are the film’s strongest point. The movie’s true success lies in the performances. It starts with Christian Bale. Armed with pretty much the same voice that he used playing Dicky in “The Fighter”, Bale was the most compelling character of the bunch. While he may sound like Dicky his physical appearance was quite different. In “The Fighter” Bale lost over 30 pounds to convincing depict a crack addict. In “American Hustle” he gained nearly 50 pounds which we get a good look at in the film’s opening scene. But Bale delivers much more than just a physical transformation. He gives us a character who is funny, selfish, crooked, pitiful, sympathetic – all encapsulated within a wonderful performance.
I also liked Bradley Cooper, an actor who has gotten surprisingly better over time. His character is a little hard to gauge at first but as the story unfolds so does Richie’s personality and ambitions. Cooper gives an hearty performance that does at times get a tad too big but is still impressive. And speaking of big, Jennifer Lawrence is also good as the powder keg Rosalyn. She has already raked in a ton of critical acclaim but I wouldn’t call this her best work. The character is loud and abrasive by design so the performance has to be big. But it isn’t until later in the film that Lawrence is actually allowed to show her range. On the other hand Amy Adams (goofy split-up-the-front blouses aside) is fantastic. Her character isn’t a ‘take home to meet the parents’ kind of girl, but there is a sad and needy underlying thread to her. Adams never misses a beat. And I can’t forget Jeremy Renner who has a smaller role but to me was just as good as anyone else.
I can’t say that “American Hustle” has any kind of staying power and I don’t think I’ll remember it as one of the great films. But there is something about these generally unlikable characters that draws you to the screen. In typical David O. Russell fashion they are a little too abrasive for my taste. But each is fascinating in their own right and each truly desires something more: Irving – to be a more successful con, Richie – an FBI superstar, Sydney – British royalty, Rosalyn – a loved and appreciated wife, Carmine – a legendary mayor. Most of the credit for this goes to the performances. “American Hustle” is more of a showcase of great actors than it is great storytelling, but it still keeps you glued to the screen as you watch them do their work.