AMERICAN HUSTLE has glimmers of brilliance, but as a whole it’s an underwhelming experience, and director David O Russell’s least complete feeling film to date.
The story takes place in the late 1970s, and is loosely based on the real “Abscam” of that period and its aftermath. Veteran con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his mistress and scamming convert Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) conceive an elaborate plan to make easy money using a fake loans company. Their plan goes awry when they’re rumbled by fanatical undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who blackmails the pair into helping him bring down corrupt officials by doing what they do best, eventually recruiting Irving’s unstable young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) to their motley crew. The lies and the hustling escalate to involve the mob and high-up politicians, and before long no-one remembers who they once were, or what is driving them.
The actors all turn in interesting performances, and their obscene cleavage and hideous 70s hair play a major part in their characterisations (and that’s just Christian Bale). The film opens with Bale’s Irving meticulously constructing his comb-over, before Cooper’s Richie ruins it with a quick flick of his hand. Apart from the body transformation, Bale could do this kind of role in his sleep, and Amy Adams’ fake British accent she puts on as part of her deception is (hopefully) deliberately wobbly, which is fine because it’s meant to be a fake voice, but not fine that no-one who isn’t in on the act seems to notice. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are much more impressive, both building their critically loved dramatic turns in David O Russell’s previous Oscar-winner SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Cooper relishes playing a bullying live-wire, and is actually rather terrifying when he really loses it, and Lawrence further cements her position as the most talented and versatile young American actress working today with a raw performance perfectly situated between comic relief and pathos. Jeremy Renner’s Elvis-quiffed mayor Carmine Polito is arguably the nicest character in the film, and though Renner is solid and charismatic in the role, Polito is just too dull and idealistic to leave much of an impact.
I’ve got issues with the film. The extended, philosophising narration by Bale and Adams is irritating, and the near-constant presence of a compilation soundtrack (good as the songs are) is incredibly distracting, and often detracts from the drama. The plot also feels quite disjointed, scenes feel disconnected from one another and you rarely get a sense of why characters are doing what they’re doing.
There are a grand total of three memorable scenes in the film. The first, a tense and moody dialogue involves an unpublicised (though not particularly surprising) cameo when the troupe of hustlers meet a powerful mob boss. The second is a (improvised) heated argument between Irvin and Rosalyn that brings out the very best in Bale and Lawrence’s respective talents. The best, most entertaining sequence in the film though, by quite a way, simply involves Rosalyn angrily cleaning her house and singing along to “Live and Let Die” – it’s one of the rare occasions in the film where you really feel for a character and their inner turmoil. All three scenes are in the film’s middle act, leaving the rest of the runtime rather disappointing in comparison.
Like another flashy caper, OCEAN’S ELEVEN, there’s a lot of pizzazz to Hustle, but not a lot going on below the surface. The characters are beyond empty, and that seems to be the point. It’s a film about putting on an elaborate act every day of your life, but you never get a real sense of what’s driving these people to do what they do, at least beyond their own petty insecurities. Even the supposedly hard-hitting social/relationship drama scenes are difficult to emotionally invest yourself in when you don’t care in the least about these horrible people trying to rip off more horrible people. Not every film has to have likable characters, but surely you should be able to understand them rather than just watch with a sense of horrid fascination? You can feel pity for them to an extent, but that’s not quite the same as empathising with them.
American Hustle is pretty funny, it’s diverting as entertainment, and it does provide plenty of space for its actors to experiment. The plot takes too long to warm up, and once it does it plays pretty fast and loose, and sometimes feels a little slight in terms of emotional depth, unlike most of Russell’s previous work. It’s also as subtle as Bale’s comb-over, Adams’ plunging neckline or Cooper’s tight perm. In short it’s a brazen film representing a brazen decade, but a film without a conscience such as this should surely allow you to have more fun. I’m sure David O Russell and his cast of regulars had a ball making it, and sometimes that reaches the viewer, but as a film it too often feels devoid of human interest, and a little too pleased about that. SSP