Film Review – American Hustle
Films dealing with con artists often fall into the same trap time travel films do: focusing entirely on the gimmick. Where some filmmakers highlight the paradoxes of the space-time continuum, others put too much emphasis on the “trick” with con films. They revel in fooling an audience, and surprising them with “gotcha” moments they never saw coming. David O. Russell avoids this with his latest, American Hustle (2013). While we get instances of surprise twists, Russell (along with co-writer Eric Singer) lifts the material by developing characters that are more interesting than the plot they’re involved in. I’d be just as entertained watching these people move along their normal daily lives – whatever scheme they’re a part of is really just icing on the cake.
Russell has entered the peak years of his career. He’s always made interesting work before (some better than others), but he has reached a point where he is really clicking in terms of storytelling. This is now the third straight film (along with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) where nearly every element is working to full potential. This time, he takes us to New Jersey in the late seventies, where big hair, flashy clothes, and disco dominated the scene. We are introduced to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams); two people deeply in love, but who are also experienced con artists. Both Irving and Sydney are good at what they do – they’re so subtle with their approach they can make their targets literally beg to give them money. They’re also smart enough not to grow their business to the point of being recognized.
That is, until they meet FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Hungry to make a name for himself and land a big case, Richie forces Irving and Sydney to collaborate and take down some heavy honchos. One of their primary marks is New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Carmine is a good guy, and wants to help his city so much he would be willing to work with people he usually doesn’t. And this is where things get really interesting. The deeper Irving, Sydney, and Richie go, the closer they get to real danger. Targets get bigger and more dangerous – involving the mafia and corrupt politicians. As much as Irving and Sydney want to keep things low key, Richie wants to push forward with more fervor.
Above all, American Hustle is a showcase of talented actors all playing their parts to full realization. There is not one weak link here. Christian Bale turns into a chameleon as Irving, gaining a ton of weight and sporting one of the most blatant comb-overs in recent memory. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who played the physically fit Batman just a few years ago. Amy Adams is excellent as Sydney, playing sexy and controlling only as a disguise to hide her inner vulnerability. The way she switches from a Jersey accent to a British one comes off a little too smoothly. And Bradley Cooper puts in good work as Richie, overly ambitious while losing sight of just how deep he’s getting everyone (including himself) into. It’s a high wire act as all three try to settle their issues while pursuing the same goal. But seeing them try to overcome their quirks and eccentricities only adds to the joy. At times, all three seem to love each other, other times they could kill one another. Added to the insanity is Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s actual wife. Irving can’t stand Rosalyn, and would leave her in the dust if it weren’t for his affection for his son. Jennifer Lawrence chews up scenery as her character, smoking and drinking and yelling profanities after every other word. Her jealousy of Irving and Sydney’s relationship only complicates matters, and inevitably puts the entire operation at risk.
And that is the heart of the film. It’s clear David O. Russell isn’t concerned with the plot, but with the characters. Entire scenes are dedicated to the relationships between these people. We sense there are real emotions at stake, and the betrayal characters feel resonate tangibly. The “con” almost becomes an afterthought; the life-or-death danger they face never truly materializes. This may be due to how funny everything is. Surprisingly, the black comedy is consistent; there are big laughs because of how surreal the circumstances become. Take Irving for example. This is a guy who started breaking windows to help his dad’s glass business. Years later, he somehow finds himself rubbing elbows with politicians and members of the mafia – along with his crazy wife and current lover – in the same room. It would be weird not to laugh at that situation.
American Hustle is an impressive work by everyone involved. It flows so naturally and is so entertaining I found myself disappointed when it all ended. It captures a specific time in history to add a unique texture to a familiar premise, creating something new, fresh, and riveting.