Style over substance: Those three words pretty much sum up the new David O’Russell 1970’s caper-comedy “American Hustle.” The film seems to exist as an exercise in aesthetics, featuring beautiful wardrobe, exceptional production design, and a great soundtrack. A lot of interesting flourishes are at work here, with some really good character work done by some phenomenal performers. But the truth: “American Hustle” struggles to be anything other than average.
It feels like a movie that aspires to be a low-stakes version of “Goodfellas.” Different characters and overlapping narratives make up a story involving grifters and political corruption. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a charismatic con-man, with an epic comb-over, who has an amazing ability to talk people out of money. He’s the kind of low-rent hustler content with his lot in life. He makes small plays and keeps his cons manageable.
Sydney (Amy Adams) is a similar soul. Unlike Iriving, she had big hopes and dreams that never came to fruition. A charming, attractive lady with a broken spirit, she’s looking for someone to pick up the pieces. Together, they make a good team and scam people out of money with a fake banking scheme.
It all culminates in a terrible conclusion when the FBI gets involved. The feds present the two with a simple choice: Work for the government to help root-out corruption or go to jail. They are handled by Dimaso (Bradley Cooper), a cocky agent looking to make a name for himself. Dimaso somehow intertwines his pursuit of truth and justice with his pursuit for a more exciting life. He develops a crush on Sydney and begins to make decisions with his “little agent.” The con soon goes from small-time hustlers to big-time decision makers when a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) and Irving get involved to revitalize the economically depleted Atlantic City.
First off, let me say the performances in “American Hustle” make up the primary reason to see this movie. There isn’t a realistic portrayal of a person in the movie but a collection of cartoon characters delivering some truly epic dialogue. I was flabbergasted with how ridiculously acted the movie is, but also by how well it works in this weird, cartoonish way—especially given David O’Russell’s undertaking of the material. It’s like watching a mainstream drama if it had been put together by someone who only produced pornography. There’s an ugly, frills-free quality to everything. Even the most beautiful things in the movie are at best garish. Consequently, it feels like a love letter to a 1978 issue of “Vanity Fair.”
The movie thrives when it focuses on its eccentric characters. It all culminates when two great performers onscreen brilliantly dissolve into a bi-polar state—giving the impression that anything can happen.
Jennifer Lawrence emotes in this movie; yet, I can’t really say if she’s good or bad in it. This is the kind of movie “American Hustle” is—like watching great actors make themselves look cheap and ugly for the sake of selling the 1970’s vibe. Bradley Cooper proves himself to be quite the accomplished actor, managing to steal the show from Bale and his monstrous hairpiece. Cooper turns in a fearless performance that is fearless. Though Bale is a fine performer, there’s too much structure to his acting to fit into this film.
O’Russell gets granted a lot of forgiveness because he found a weird, wonderful niche that few others attempt; however, he says very little of interest with that voice. So much of “American Hustle”—and O’Russel’s other films—are predictable and preordained. With very little surprise or intrigue, the architecture of the film seems to exist like the set of a play: to give the characters a place to exist. It offers a lot of crazy people doing and saying a lot of erratic things, but it’s like they all lack higher brain functions. They’re all emotionally controlled automatons, who are fun to spend two hours with but seem so completely unrealistic as human beings.
O’Russell’s other movies suffer the same malady. Whether it’s the mentally ill people who seem to be able to turn on and off their afflictions (“Silver Linings Playbook”), or the wacky antics of the family (“The Fighter”), he succeeds making something over-the-top and entertaining. Still, none of it feels real.
“American Hustle” is worth seeing. It’s fun, garish, and features some really gonzo performances from some actors who seem to be having a lot of fun playing these unrealistic facsimiles of human beings. O’Russell seems to have found that same kind of hyper-stylized filmmaking that guys like Tarantino and Wes Anderson have excelled at: innovating weird worlds where their oddball characters can go nuts. Like Tarantino or Wes Anderson, one’s enjoyment will be based on whether or not he or she digs this particular brand of whimsy. For me, I like it, but I’ve yet to love it.DETAILS
★ ★ ★ (Out of 5)
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence