Contrary to his reputation as a hard man to work for, David O. Russell’s latest movie American Hustle continues his recent streak as a people-pleaser. It has Big Name Actors! In cool clothes! Dancin’ to the hits! Are we having fun yet?
The lavish 70’s setting is more than just an excuse to dress up the actors and pay tribute to Scorcese, it’s a very deliberate selection of a decade marked by dishonesty (Watergate and ABSCAM sure, but people dancing to disco had to be lying to themselves about one thing or another) The real-life ABSAM scandal is the jumping off point, an access to the 70’s aesthetic from which a story is told about liars being used by other liars while everybody’s really lying to themselves. When Russell winds his volatile characters up and watches them go the movie is a treat to watch, a bombastic, naturally funny experience with actors at the top of their game. One can argue (Well okay, I can argue with you) as to whether that lasts for the entirety of the movies run time, but while it lasts American Hustle is Hollywood at its best; big, loud and fun.
Amy Adams and Christian Bale star as Sydney and Irving, a pair of con-artists/lovers roped into working with the FBI to avoid jail time. A sleazy, ambitious agent played by Bradley Cooper uses their hustling skills to go after high-ranking officials, most prominently the well-intentioned mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner). Cooper’s character finds himself seduced both by Sydney and by the prospect of a big catch skyrocketing his career, resulting in him raising the stakes higher and higher, butting carefully coiffed heads with Bale’s meticulous and cautious small-time grifter. Flitting in and out of the movie is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s actual wife Rosalyn, who serves both as comic relief and as an agent of chaos, injecting even more conflict into the film even when it already seems fit to burst.
The true appeal in American Hustle is just sitting back and watching some of the most talented actors and actresses around at the moment do their thing. Movies about cons typically feature too-cool-for-school types who always have everything under control, but this movie excels in portraying its players as damaged and vulnerable people hiding behind a confident veneer. Bale again puts his future health at risk by committing physically to a role, this time sporting a pot belly to sell his image as a low-level slimeball, but there’s more to his performance in this film than dangerous weight fluctuation. Bale is well-known for “intensity” but surprised me by giving his character real vulnerability. Irving Rosenfeld is an empathetic figure, a man who knows he’s in over his head, struggling to reconcile his genuine love for Sydney with his desire to hang on to his wife and especially, his adopted son. He’s also conflicted by the friendship he develops with Jeremy Renner’s character, confused by being shown affection who is honest about who he is at all times. It would be easy, especially in a comedic movie like this, for Renner to merely play Mayor Carmine Polito as a total sap but Renner makes him real and genuinely likeable in what may be his best performance in a film to date.
I was less taken with Adams’ performance as most others have been, feeling that her big, angry showcase scenes were lacking something, but her chemistry with the two male leads is exceptional and like Bale she successfully taps in to her characters weakness and isolation in the movies quieter moments. An early scene with the two in Irving’s laundry room, beautifully directed, perfectly demonstrates how much they need each other. Lawrence makes the most of her limited screentime, barrelling into scenes like a whirlwind and going big for laughs (if this were on stage, she would be playing to the crowd big time) Cooper is no stranger to brash muppets after too many Hangover movies and he polishes that old performance up to be very funny as the frattish, sexually frustrated FBI agent but he isn’t really as capable of giving his character emotional depth as the other performances. That the big names all do well is the movies biggest strength, strong performances sprinkled throughout by actors who didn’t get billing is the icing on the cake. Louis C.K. plays Coopers sad sack boss and doesn’t just deliver his own comedy but also evokes delightful character acting along the lines of a J.K. Simmons, a few Boardwalk Empire actors unexpectedly show up and another recent Russell collaborator effectively uses what remains of his credibility to lend some menace to the final act and strengthen the Scorcese homage Hustle is trying to be.
There are a couple of factors preventing American Hustle from getting a 10/10 from me, apart from the fact that I don’t do numbered ratings. Firstly, some aspects of those attempts to evoke Goodfellas or Casino feel overstated and unnecessary, it felt like there was one or two good-times montages set to music of the era too many, I just wanted the film to get back to the actors playing off each other in these moments. The narration, included for a similar reason didn’t really add anything to understanding the characters and could have been taken out without changing too much. More damningly however, in my opinion the movie didn’t stick the landing well enough to be considered a true top of the line movie. You know in a movie like this they’re setting themselves up for one big hustle at the end that turns everything on its head but the way it played out felt too straightforward and things wrapped up too easily. For a movie to spend so much time adding more and more conflicts and complications only for things to work out pretty well without much trouble for the majority of the characters at the end felt disappointing, like things just petered out at the end. This doesn’t mean I don’t recommend American Hustle, it was as I said a very entertaining film, but I’ll be very interested to see if the similar-in-tone award bait The Wolf of Wall Street can deliver a more complete package in the end.