Review: American Hustle

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David O. Russell has been enjoying a directorial resurgence this decade, and its largely due to his deft ability to find new texture within genres. Both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook might have had predictable conclusions, but O. Russell’s preference for character building over narrative momentum gave the films greater weight. This year he continues his genre work by presenting a cast of characters in American Hustle, telling the true story of ABSCAM in the late 1970’s featuring con men, politicians, gangsters and the FBI. While the colorful cast keeps the energy flowing, the film lacks visual patience, and for a film about cons there are scarcely any genuine surprises.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is chubby, grizzled, and wears an outrageous hairpiece to boost his combover. Considering his profession as a con man, one would think this physique is itself a willful mirage, but indeed it is as visually candid as Irving gets. In a frustrating marriage with his trophy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Rosenfeld has been running all kinds of scams for decades, and he’s recently hooked up with former stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) for a new scheme. They eagerly cheat one client after the next, until FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) shows up and arrests Sydney. Rather than prosecuting them, however, Richie has bigger fish to fry, namely local politicians with dirty money connections through the mob. His primary target is Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who plans on investing the shady millions of dollars into the Atlantic City casinos. Without a choice in the matter, Rosenfeld and Prosser acquiesce, but as DiMaso’s tactics become questionable with Rosenfeld, and loose cannon Rosalyn enters the picture, everyone finds themselves in over their heads.

As with Russell’s previous two efforts, the cast of American Hustle is its strongest asset. Given his outlandish appearance, its easy to expect Christian Bale to overplay Irving Rosenfeld but he actually does the opposite. Largely due to his physical commitment, Bale transforms once again, and his love/hate relationship with Rosalyn is the film’s most fascinating aspect. Jennifer Lawrence is once again her spunky self, and she injects the most drama and intrigue as the boisterous wild card. Bradley Cooper does solid work as Richie DiMaso, playing the agent’s inflated ego and thirst for power to the degree that he butts heads constantly with everyone, especially his own boss (Louis C.K.). All too often, Cooper seems like he’s trying hard to please and force chemistry, but its likely a keen reflection on the character he’s playing. Considering her talents, Amy Adams’ Sydney is surprisingly the weakest link, whose double identity as Edith, a British heiress is unconvincing. It’s not Adams fault as she does what she can, but the character’s motivations are underwritten. Jeremy Renner is also quite good as the mayor, a winning man of the people whose growing rapport with Rosenfeld complicates the latter’s investment in the takedown.

The storytelling issues of American Hustle begin with its insistence of using voiceover. This is done initially as Irving talks about his start in the con business, and then he further elaborates on his love for Sydney as she also clamors over him in voiceover. This switching back and forth is further complicated as suddenly Richie also begins to explain the mechanics of the con on the mayor. This reliance on voiceover is just completely misguided as there is no clarification on what point of view the film has. Worst of all is the fact that the voiceovers telegraph the feelings of the characters on screen. These characters are compelling on their own, and its almost as if Russell didn’t trust the actors to imply those emotions on their own. Thankfully, the voiceovers diminish as the film progresses, but it still gets in the way of telling the story.

As a film where everyone is playing their own game, American Hustle features quite a few strong scenes with humor and pizzazz to them as one can expect from Russell, especially the film’s riotous opening. However, the film is somewhat deprived of consistent tension or unexpected twists. The big climax is fun, but its also possible to see coming a mile away in retrospect. The biggest exception is a fabulous scene where all the key players are present for a deal in which an FBI agent poses as an Arab sheik to meet a Miami kingpin (Robert De Niro) who has connections with Mayor Polito. It’s an effectively composed scene, largely due to De Niro’s cameo performance running the show. Simultaneous to this is a juicy confrontation between both of Irving’s belles as Rosalyn and Sydney come to a head, and both come to realize what they mean to him.

The restless aesthetics that complemented Russell’s previous two efforts are taken into overdrive here, and they occasionally work but also can demonstrate a lack of patience. Russell favors spontaneity yes, but when his camera is constantly bobbing and weaving, it can be more than a little distracting. The visuals then begin to dictate the story when it should be vice versa, and so when in nearly every scene the stedicam shot rushes to the face of a character for a reaction or a line, it gradually loses its power. As is befitting of the time period, the costumes in American Hustle are wild, as is the occasionally well implemented 70s soundtrack. Without giving too much away, the film’s biggest sin is that it literally spells out its theme upfront within the first twenty minutes, and yet where the characters end up by the end of the film doesn’t justify its claim. All of these characters have details and layers, but its hard to say that anyone fully changes through the course of the film. Strictly as a caper, American Hustle can be good fun largely thanks to the chemistry of its cast, but its visual and storytelling impatience keep it from transcending its genre trappings.

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~ by romancinema on December 15, 2013.

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