Directed by: David O. Russell
R. 129 mins
A fun, but overrated film that seems to wander back and forth in a monotonous way, repeating situations over and over without truly going somewhere. David O. Russell directs this very loose interpretation of the 70s ABSCAM fiasco. The film stars Christian Bale, in a marvellously dreadful comb-over, as con man Irving Rosenfeld, who is forced to work for eccentric FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in order to keep both him and his partner/sometimes-lover (Amy Adams) out of jail. Irving’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is the firecracker that could blow the whole operation and Jeremy Renner is Carmine Polito, the passionate New Jersey politician caught between the con-artists and Feds. American Hustle is either a great meta-pun, or a complete failure in that it struggles to figure out just what it’s trying to accomplish. Like most of Russell’s work, this is a film that falls under many genres which makes it both fascinating and frustrating. Here, the plot falls secondary to character and while that may work for some films, it doesn’t quite work here. Unfotunartely, there is a sense that a lot is going on but nothing seems to be accomplished. At more than two hours in length, the film moves at a deliberate pace, boring the audience despite the all-star cast and what *should be* an intriguing exploration of power and ambition. Of course, it isn’t all bad.
There are glimpses of greatness throughout the film, and the idea that people can con both themselves and others into believing just about anything is a thoughtful notion to explore. This is a film that attempts to unpack what it means to be happy with yourself – how each day is a chance to reinvent yourself and be somebody else, even if that person falls on the wrong side of the law. It is also a film about survival and making the best of what you’ve got. Now ain’t that the American Dream? The problem is, we move between set pieces as opposed to truly engaging events. The characters are involving at times and the performances are spectacular, but the film as a whole is curiously uninvolving and for a film with ‘hustle’ in the title, I was expecting a bit more momentum.
It’s clear that so much of the dialogue was improvised and in doing so, the actors deliver over-the-top performances that seem to excuse the material they had to work with. Ultimately, the whole thing feels indulgent with little editing on Russell’s part. At times, it feels like we are watching a cast of old friends who get together to have some fun for us all to observe, instead of witnessing a film that truly transports us to a different time and place, where characters are three-dimensional and not caricatures. But perhaps that’s the point of it all – perhaps this mess is intended to reflect life and all it’s peculiarities. Life, and certainly people, are imperfect and beneath the flashy outfits, there lies a tremendous amount of insecurities beneath each of these characters. This idea, above any other, was conveyed. Perhaps if everyone, with the exception of Amy Adam’s character, weren’t caricatures in both costume and performance, the weight of the historical events being depicted would feel less ridiculous in contrast to the levity with which everything else is treated.
Offbeat characters can work with weighty situations, but not this time around. If Russell wants to detail a real life scandal, the pace needs to quicken and the story needs to actually be believable; Cooper’s character physically assaults his boss (brilliantly performed by Louis C.K.) and he faces no consequences! It’s details like this that render the more touching situations – the relationship between Irving and Carmine, for example – less meaningful. If Russell wanted to make this a satire, then the events should have been entirely fictional and the comedy should have had a focus throughout. This is not a bad film, but all the elements at play yielded mixed results for me. Somewhat compelling and sometimes quite funny, American Hustle isn’t as artistically compelling as some would have you believe – it’s self-indulgent meandering to a place that we’ve already been before, with better tour guides.