American Hustle Review

(3.5 STARS)

Of many great pleasures found in David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, the greatest is watching not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE talented actors give truly exceptional performances. Jeremy Renner is the only Russell newcomer, as the Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter helmer has brought together an all-star lineup of actors from those two films. When all is said and done, there’s no real acting MVP; Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence (plus Renner) all stand out in different scenes and in different ways. They all deserve a great deal of credit, though, for making American Hustle—an otherwise middle-of-the-road motion picture—insanely entertaining.

The film is loosely based on the real-life ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s—the opening title card tells us “Some of this is actually true”—which saw a number of U.S. congressmen and a senator jailed for accepting bribes. It introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and his mistress/business partner, Sydney Prosser/Lady Edith Greensley (Adams). They’re involved in a number of mildly illicit activities—fake loans, art forgery—but they’re great at what they do.

Unfortunately for them, so is FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). He pins Rosenfeld and “Greensley” into a legal corner and forces them both to work with the agency to bring down a handful of corrupt officials, starting with Carmine Polito (Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Rosenfeld cozies up with the mayor, who leads him into a hornets nest of vicious mobsters and big political fish. All the while, Greensley cozies up with DiMaso, and Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) cozies up with every guy and every booze bottle in sight, threatening to derail the operation in a spectacular way.

The film is a little too slick for its own good. While Russell nails the look of 1970s New York and New Jersey, specifically when it comes to the “trying-by-any-means-necessary-to-move-up class,” he does so at the expense of pacing and coherence. It’s not hard film to follow, but don’t go in expecting reasoned character development or anything resembling motivation. People do things in American Hustle because they’re funny and sometimes unexpected. That’s fine enough if it works—and it does here—but it prevents American Hustle from reaching greatness.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s opening shot tells you almost everything you need to know about Christian Bale’s performance. Again, the man transforms his body for a role—information we ascertain immediately when we’re hit with a close-up of Bale’s exploding gut. His comb-over isn’t much more flattering, yet he’s vain as anything, trying to glue strands of hair to his bald head. Physical imperfections aside, Bale’s Irving is, oddly enough, one of the film’s most grounded characters. He knows what he’s good at and, more importantly, his limitations. And while he’s a criminal, he can recognize a pure heart when he sees it. The agony he feels over his inability to make things right for those who deserve the right things is among American Hustle‘s most satisfying material.

There probably isn’t an aspect of American Hustle more satisfying than Bradley Cooper’s performance, however. He, like Jennifer Lawrence, steals every scene he’s in. Both are purely id-driven characters filled with manic energy. Cooper’s character is a little more complicated than Lawrence’s, though, given that he’s the law among the unlawful.

Amy Adams is the fourth main player, and her game is self-deception. As Sydney, she creates a second persona—a Brit, mind you—who she slides into and out of at will to distract her from the reality that she’s a depressed stripper who’ll never truly get to be with the man she loves. Adams, like Bale, lends a bit of gravitas to an otherwise sugar-coated motion picture. It’s not career-best work from the great and always-present young actress, but she doesn’t get lost among much showier actors, actresses, and performances, and for that, she deserves a great deal of credit.

There’s no discounting American Hustle as two hours of pure entertainment; I laughed my ass off. But the whole doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts, and as such, it misses the mark of greatness Russell hit with Silver Linings and other films previously.

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