After months of anticipation, David O. Russell’s 1970s true crime drama American Hustle has opened to rave reviews and plenty of Oscar buzz. This is not terribly surprising, given the film was generating Oscar buzz before a single frame was ever filmed.
There was certainly every reason to believe it would be a Best Picture contender: Russell’s previous two films (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) were both nominated for the big award, and scored a combined six nominations (including three wins) in the acting categories. Four of those nominees/winners (Fighter’s Christian Bale and Amy Adams, and Playbook’s Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper) are reunited here. Also, it’s a film based on a true story, which as we all know, the Academy loves. On paper, American Hustle certainly appears to be a movie bound for Oscar glory.
So I can only assume that after months of the critics and pundits predicting, sight unseen, that the film would be a major awards competitor, none of them wanted to admit how wrong they were, and so they responded to the finished product with wildly effusive praise. There’s really no other way to explain how this much critical acclaim and year-end accolades (including seven Golden Globe nominations!) have been lavished upon such a meandering, laborious, unfocused film.
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American Hustle has most of the ingredients for a great film, but it forgets the important ones: a plot, for starters. Some sort of overriding theme, for another. Or really, any reason at all for being. The movie has no big ideas, other than “everybody lies, all the time, to themselves, and everyone around them”, and after it makes that not-very-profound point early on, it has little else to say. The script appears to have been written primarily with the goal of securing statuettes for its cast; the story itself is a bit of an afterthought.
The film deals with the Abscam scandal of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, where the FBI employed the services of a con man to set up undercover stings that led to the arrest of a U.S. Senator, five U.S. Representatives, and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (among others). But it’s a very loose retelling of the events. All of the names have been changed (including those of the convicted congressmen), and the film bears an opening title card that reads, “Some of this actually happened.” It gets a laugh, but it mostly feels like Russell trying to evade the minefield that a filmmaker usually has to walk through in adapting a supposed “true story”, sidestepping the inevitable accusations of omitting important details. His not wanting to do the research may have been the product of pure laziness, but there’s an equally good chance that he simply didn’t have the time.
Compared to Silver Linings Playbook, where Russell labored over the script for five years, American Hustle was made in a flash, surely motivated by the nominations for Playbook, but probably mostly due to the very similar 1970s-era caper flick Argo winning Best Picture. The people love A-list stars in polyester suits? Let’s give ‘em A-list stars in polyester suits!
The original screenplay (memorably titled American Bullshit) made the Black List back in 2010, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that Russell was attached. He extensively rewrote the script, began principal photography in March, and here the movie is, already in theaters for your consideration. I presume the expedited production is why the film is such an aimless mess; additional time polishing up the script surely would have resulted in a tighter, more focused film.
Bale plays a New York con artist named Irving Rosenfeld, a guy with a pot belly and a hairdo that another character accurately describes as “elaborate”. The film opens with him securing his comb-over in place using a combination of spirit gum, hairspray, sorcery, and voodoo. Irving owns a chain of dry cleaners, but his real racket is helping shady characters take out loans. Except, he never actually gets them the loans, and yet pockets a $5,000 finders’ fee anyway. (One of the most implausible aspects of the film is that no one in the neighborhood ever catches onto Irving’s scam, and no angry customers ever show up on his doorstep demanding their money back.)
Irving soon hooks up with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), an ex-stripper who puts on an English accent and calls herself “Lady Edith Greensly” and pretends to be distantly related to British royalty. They fall madly in love and Irving uses her fake royal connections to give his various scams (including selling forged artwork) more legitimacy.
Alas, one day they pull their scam on an undercover FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who has his own elaborate hairstyle in the form of a tightly curled perm. The couple is facing serious prison time, but DiMaso offers them a deal: they’ll see their sentences reduced if they help the FBI nab more white collar criminals just like them.
Sydney wants to run off to another country, but Irving isn’t going anywhere. It turns out he also has a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and a young son who he refuses to abandon. So Sydney is left to develop her own long con, where she’s going to slowly but surely become the object of DiMaso’s affections, and then use him later to her own advantage.
The operation starts small, with one of Irving’s friends pretending to be an Arab sheik to attract criminals selling fake bank certificates. But then they get a lead on a bigger target: Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner), a pompadoured public servant who just got the state to legalize gambling, and seems to be willing to do anything to bring casinos to Atlantic City. And by virtue of being the only one not chewing up the scenery, Renner’s Polito surprisingly becomes the most sympathetic character in this thing.
DiMaso hires his own fake sheik (who, hilariously, is actually Mexican), and two million dollars of taxpayer money sitting in his bank account convinces the mayor that he’s legit about wanting to build a hotel/casino. This attracts the attention of the mob, in particular Mr. Tellegio (an uncredited Robert De Niro), who suggests the sheik get U.S. citizenship to move things along. Over Irving’s objections, DiMaso expands the operation into bribing congressman under the pretense of helping the “sheik” become an American. Irving is soon in way over his head, having to worry about payback from the mob, and also retribution from Agent DiMaso, who turns out to be more deranged than the people he’s looking to take down.
The Abscam scandal is certainly intriguing fodder for a film, and when the movie finally focuses on the undercover video stings that ensnared politicians, it actually comes alive. Unfortunately, this appears to be the one part of the story that Russell is the least interested in telling. Yes, this is a director who’s always been more fascinated with characters over plot, but if that’s the case, why adapt a complex true crime story in the first place?
Christian Bale, who lost a scary amount of weight for The Fighter, now swings in the opposite direction with a big gut that’s... frankly not that impressive. It’s only impressive because it’s on Christian Bale. He truly does disappear into the character of Irving, but I think he may have gone too far this time around, as he almost completely disappears from the movie. I honestly can’t even tell you what Irving really does in this film; he seems to mostly react to the two insane women in his life.
One of them is Jennifer Lawrence, currently being lauded for allegedly “stealing” every scene she’s in, which leads me to believe that someone could film her pooping into a shoebox for two hours and the critics would still go wild. She’s likeable enough, and entertaining enough, but clearly this is a role that should have gone to an actress with a lot more character and life experience, not a 22 year old ingénue.
However, as Irving’s other woman, Amy Adams gives a career-making performance. She commands our full attention whenever she’s on screen, and stands in stark contrast to Lawrence, who mostly likely hit her mark, read her lines, and then went home. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this as an acting technique (I doubt De Niro was up all night studying the script, either) but clearly, Adams is attempting to truly understand what it means to be Sydney. She completely puts herself out there, emotionally as well as physically, in a variety of barely-there outfits with plunging necklines that deserve an award of their own.
I realize I’m not the first to point this out, but there’s just no getting around how much the film borrows from Goodfellas, with the “rise and fall” story arc of its lead character, dueling unreliable narrators, and fluid tracking shots set to the sounds of pop hits from the era. Add to that a cameo from De Niro, and I’d say Russell is more or less admitting that all he wanted to do was make his own Martin Scorsese film.
But unlike Goodfellas, the movie rambles way too much to build any forward momentum. Whenever things get interesting, the film screeches to a halt for a silly interlude, like Jennifer Lawrence talking about the smell of her nail polish, or Jennifer Lawrence setting her kitchen on fire using one of those new-fangled microwave ovens, or Jennifer Lawrence lip-syncing to Paul McCartney while doing housework. Can you tell who I think the weak link is here? (Though really, the fault lies with the director for leaning too heavily upon all the goodwill J-Law has previously built up among critics and audiences.)
The way the plot wraps up is clever, but way too happy and neat and tidy for the supposed “true story” it’s based on. American Hustle needed more satire, and more sharpness. It needed to directly take on politics and corruption and slice it to the bone, but the humor is mostly relegated to showing us hyper-insane ‘70s fashion, and letting us laugh at the hair of the two male leads. Russell was clearly not going for an authentic 1970s milieu here, unless his memories of the ‘70s consist entirely of late night coke benders at Studio 54.
American Hustle has also been likened to the Ocean’s Eleven remake, and one can easily see the similarities: it’s a whole lot of famous faces pulling off a caper that leaves you asking “so what?” as you leave the theater. And just like Ocean’s, it’s like watching a two-hour highlight reel of an awesome Hollywood party that you weren’t invited to; only, in the case of American Hustle, this particular shindig was a 1970s-themed costume bash.
The direction, editing, and acting are all top notch, but overall, this is probably David Russell’s weakest effort since the overblown misfire I Heart Huckabees. Russell’s films generally contain a manic energy, where you can believe his characters are capable of doing anything at any time, but previously this was the means to the end of telling a story, not the whole point of the movie in and of itself.
Overall, I think you can safely wait a few months and make American Hustle a rental, and even only then if you’re a fan of Russell or the members of his cast. I haven’t seen The Wolf of Wall Street yet, but I look forward to checking it out soon, because after enduring this Scorsese clone, I’m sure it’ll be a breath of fresh air to experience the real thing.