Directed by: David O’Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
So American Hustle could not have hit theaters at a worse time. What we have here is an ensemble crime drama with comedy quirky attitude, and a definitive cinematic flare. Sound familiar? It should because arguments can be made that American Hustle is either an homage to all things Martin Scorsese or an unoriginal rip-off of Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking toolbox? The reality is the final product is a little of both.
Christian Bale and Amy Adams play Irving and Sydney, a couple of small time hustlers working cons for small change (in the whole scheme of things). Everything changes for them when they try to run a con on Richie (Bradley Cooper) who is in reality an FBI agent. Richie is obsessed with making a name for himself. He will stop at nothing to make a big bust and he has the idea to bust Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) by coercing him into a scam that would put together funds to revitalize Atlantic City. Yes, as the opening title card to the film says, some of these things actually happened. Before it’s all said and done major politicians and the mob get involved, a much bigger con than Irving and Sydney ever considered being a part of. The problem is that Richie has them cornered and if they don’t help him he’ll drop them in prison.
This film is a classic installment in the crime genre in many ways with plenty of twists and turns all sitting on the shoulders of a solid group of character actors. Director DavidO’ Russell has an embarrassment of riches with secondary characters even being played by amazing actors including Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. This leads to one of the big problems of the film. Many secondary characters are introduced and given amazing scenes but then getting no development or meaning outside of being a simple plot tool. Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in but you never really know who she is other than comedy relief and a twist tool for example. It wouldn’t be a total shock if she gets an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in this film because she does a lot with only a little meat on the bone.
Also, David O’ Russell is so obsessed in homage or ripping off Martin Scorsese that he gets lost in some the more Scorsese scenes. If you are going to use a music montage make it mean something and not just feel like theatrical padding. Some of the music is used to great effect while other sequences drag the pace of the movie down. Also American Hustle utilizes main character narration to forward the story and shorten some character development requirements. When Scorsese uses main character narration it feels like the character is having a drink with you and telling you a story. In this film the narration doesn’t come of as legitimate, it feels like it’s just trying to rush the story forward to get to the good stuff. The script overall needed another pass. The story is always clear but it often doesn’t have weight. It feels like a foggy bulleted list rather than a story with impact. The first half of the film features some really poorly written and poorly delivered exposition and there are a few horribly edited scenes that literally rip you from the scene and leave you trying to figure out where everyone actually is in the room. O’ Russell also makes some shooting and editing decisions that feel like they were supposed to be thematic but they just don’t pan out. There are a few scenes where the camera just meanders down to a character’s hands during a piece of dialogue and then floats back up to their face. You can break down why this was done thematically after the movie but during it the sequences just come off bizarre. Finally there’s one annoying element in the story meant to weaken a character but it suddenly appears two thirds of the way through the film and we’re supposed to have believed it was always there.
Probably the best compliment I can give is that in spite of all of these failings American Hustle is still highly entertaining from start to finish. The cast is all great here with special notice to Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams both of whom do some of their best work here. Bradley Cooper is safe in his wheelhouse here but he does a fine job and Christian Bale literally disappears in the role of Irving. The Scorsese “inspired” camera movements do help make this film come alive when they are successfully executed and the twists and turns in the story are a lot of fun. The title card at the beginning of the film sets the tone as it reads something like “Some of this stuff happened”. The film is centered around real events but it takes some really entertaining liberties with history to say the least. Finally a special nod to Amy Adams’ wardrobe designer, ’nuff said. American Hustle is Scorsese light and that’s a compliment. One bit of advice though; don’t see this film after seeing The Wolf of Wall Street.