As I sit here, trying in vain to remember anything of importance about David O. Russell’s latest film American Hustle — which I saw hours ago — I have to ask myself the question: is this my fault?
I saw the ads and read the title, so I expected something along the lines of The Sting. I saw Ocean’s Eleven a couple days beforehand, so I expected something a little slicker. I saw The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, so I expected a good movie. So, you know what? Maybe that’s on me!
Director: David O. Russell
Release Date: December 20th, 2013
The first thing you should know about American Hustle is that it’s really not the slick caper film you may have been expecting. After busting con team/illicit couple Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams), FBI Agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) offers them a deal: go to jail or help him bust four other con men. From there, the goalposts move too often to count, as bigger and bigger fish are introduced.
At the outset, the mark is four other con artists. Then it’s Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) for a long time, and you think the film is going to be an even-handed portrayal of an honest man doing a few dishonest things for good reasons. When American Hustle is about Carmine and Irving, and the latter’s guilt as he realizes that Carmine is a decent guy, it’s quite interesting.
But then mobsters are introduced, and then more politicians are introduced. There’s nothing wrong with upping the stakes and changing the motivation, but when the characters’ ultimate goals change so often, and so formulaically, it’s hard to get invested. Here’s the formula: A new wrinkle is introduced, Richard wants to follow that lead, and Irving doesn’t. Richard pulls rank, and the scheme continues. This happens three times before the film ultimately wobbles towards a conclusion in the weakest third-act sleight of hand I’ve seen since Lucky Number Slevin.
Russell still knows how to get some really incredible performances out of a cast, and there’s not a slouch in the bunch. Jennifer Lawrence in particular delivers a complex, layered turn as Irving’s wife Rosalyn: a passive-aggressive (often aggressive aggressive) alcoholic who struggles with the idea that her husband might not love her, and is definitely in love with someone else.
Each major character is portrayed brilliantly — especially Louis C.K. as Richard’s boss Stoddard — and is fully realized by the end of the film, but I can’t help but feel they would be far better served in a film that seems interested in doing something with them. Interesting character beats — like Rosalyn and Evelyn arguing in a bathroom — just sorta come and go, with no visible payoff.
American Hustle also switches protagonists around the halfway point, but doesn’t seem interested in making a smooth transition. Richard is both audience surrogate and protagonist for a while, but the allure of the con set against the backdrop of his boring life turns him into a raving lunatic, at which point Irving takes over. It feels like the characters notice this shift as well, because all the Irving-centric characters soften and become more sympathetic. It’s not an organic change, and you can almost hear an audible thunk as the movie switches gears.
It also feels much longer than its running time. I saw two movies this past week: one of them (The Wolf of Wall Street) was three hours long and felt like two. American Hustle was the other, and I’ll bet you can guess where this is going. But for the life of me, I can’t pin down exactly why this movie felt so long. It moves at a pretty decent pace, but it feels like the plot is wrapping up one too many times.
Perhaps this could’ve been avoided if the movie was funnier. American Hustle has jokes, yes, and some of them absolutely land, but there were a lot of shots and lines of dialogue that felt like punchlines…only I didn’t laugh. It’s not like Russell can’t be funny, I cracked up often during Silver Linings Playbook, and The Fighter’s pathos wouldn’t have worked quite as well if it didn’t occasionally make you laugh. But for some reason, Russell’s deadpan sense of humor just doesn’t work with these particular characters.
At times, it feels like American Hustle is almost aware of its own ineffective structure, but it doesn’t care. Over the course of the film, Stoddard tries to impart some wisdom on Richard through the use of an anecdote from his childhood. Richard interrupts him both times before Stoddard can get to the point. Eventually, Richard corners Stoddard and demands to know the ultimate message of the story, only to have Stoddard blow him off. And that’s American Hustle summarized pretty neatly, I think. Does it want to be a character piece? A con job flic? A meditation on relationships? “Figure it out yourself!” the film seems to yell in response. “Because I sure as hell can’t be bothered.”
Nick Valdez: American Hustle is definitely a film that relies entirely on its actors. The funny part about that is none of it really matters. You can completely forgive the serviceable plot (and notable drops in pace) when you’re given scenes that are played as well as they are. Each cast member brings their A game. Christian Bale (arguably the weakest but, in the company of performances as strong as these, that doesn’t mean he’s a slouch) gets the least to do and that’s sad. Amy Adams plays up this fiery vixen which really hasn’t been explored in any of her roles (so long Princess Giselle). From her outfits, to her demeanor, Adams manages to keep her character’s strength intact while becoming one of the most dynamic female performances of the year.
Bradley Cooper is this wonderful manic do-gooder type who completely falls off the deep end. And those scenes between him and Adams? WHHHOOOOO, it’s a spicy meatball. Jennifer Lawrence packs a punch, but she’s unfortunately not as great as she could be (If you’re expecting a Silver Linings Playbook level of performance, you’ll be disappointed). O. Russell may have put most of his focus toward his character actors (and the rest of the film goes out the window), but it was a good move. American Hustle wouldn’t have worked if he had done otherwise. It definitely has brief glints of brilliance that are unfortunately muddied as bits and pieces of new development are seemingly tacked on to force the film to keep going. But it’s a lot of fun when its amazing cast is allowed to play around.
Basically, if American Hustle were a collection of short stories (or cons) tied together into a more cohesive and less cumbersome unit, we would have a great film here. But as it is, American Hustle is, well, plain ole’ “good.” 70 – Good.