At first, American Hustle seems like a no-brainer: a period piece about con-artists, written, directed and starring a powerhouse group of Oscar-nominated (and Oscar-winning) filmmakers, with high-profile positive buzz and award nominations before it even arrived in theatres. On seeing it, however, you can be forgiven for thinking you are the one being grifted.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is middle-aged, overweight, and sports one of the most impressive combovers ever put to film. Yet he connects intellectually with the beautiful, troubled Sydney (Amy Adams), and they fall in love. She joins him in his life of small-time swindling, creating a false British identity to more efficiently lure the marks.
But Irving’s actually married, to the empty and unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and he can’t leave her because of his devotion to her young son, who he has adopted, which makes for an uneasy status quo. Then Irving and Sydney are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who makes them a deal to drop the charges in exchange for their help catching other con-artists. When Richie then sets his sights on possibly-corrupt New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) instead, it’s the beginning of a dangerous sting operation that soon involves the mob – an operation that Rosalyn stumbles into, with potentially dangerous complications.
That description of the plot is American Hustle‘s deceptive front, because while it’s an accurate summation, the movie plays out in a series of scenes in which very little actually happens. Co-writer (with Eric Singer) and director David O. Russell has forgotten the artistry that makes the con-artist such a fascinating film subject. We never see how Irving and Sydney pull off their grifts so effectively. She spends the whole movie sulking that she and Irving can’t just run away together, and he spends it doing even less, warning everyone that their plans won’t work while keeping his own ideas to himself. Even the climax involves a quick switcheroo that’s not surprising in the least. All of the interesting parts of the story have been left off-screen or glossed over in montage and voiceover.
It’s sad that the script and direction fail the movie, because it’s difficult to find fault with the acting, even if the cast isn’t given much to do. Bale is strangely watchable, and he and Adams have a great chemistry keeping the romantic subplots afloat, even when they overwhelm the rest of the film. Lawrence is fantastic, fitting the one character that regularly shakes things up. Cooper is a bit over-the-top, but this fits nicely with Louis CK’s impressive role as FBI boss Stoddard Thorsen, whose efforts to reign Richie in become hilariously futile as Richie eyes bigger and bigger fish.
They all look amazing too, thanks to a detailed reconstruction of 70s fashion – Adams’ ever-plunging necklines and Cooper’s tight perm-curls are particularly amusing.
But American Hustle is all flash and sizzle, with little underneath to hold your attention. Russell’s cast is obviously willing to go where he wants to take them, but it’s not an exciting ride.
Tags: movie review