American Hustle Review
Director David O. Russell’s logic can’t be faltered, taking the best parts of his previous two films in order to make one Oscar laden prospect. Extracting Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter along with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Shea Whigham from Silver Linings Playbook for American Hustle would seem like a winning combination, but can the multi BAFTA and Golden Globe nominee really be the best of both cinematic worlds?
Aiding the film’s A-list assemblage is a retro chic 70s setting that’s so prominently in vogue of late. Argo, No, The Iceman, Rush, Inside Llewyn Davis and even Anchorman 2 all have successfully utilised nostalgic charm to woo audiences, yet American Hustle makes the boldest fashion statement in its 1978 time capsule. Dubious hairstyles, velvet suits and a lot of cleavage, Bradly Cooper included, are matched with a best of 70s soundtrack for an authentically repulsive familiarity of the era for both its narrative and all-star cast.
Oscar winning cast? Check. Chic 70s setting? Check. Tantalising, twisting and turning plot? Check. The latterly mentioned narrative is an always enthralling heist/con number that thrives off plot arcs and hair brain capers keeping the audiences ponder who will get the last laugh. Follicly challenged conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his latest partner, in and out of crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) have been rumbled for their fraud racket by self-obsessive FBI man Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper), leaving them no choice but to assistant the federal agent in bringing down a promotion catalysing big name. New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is the target with his honest, but back handed, dreams of turning Atlantic City back into a casino haven. While the basic premise is for Irving to con Polito into the law’s hands in exchange for his freedom the reality is much murkier with the ambitions of Di Maso growing, Irving’s estranged wife Jennifer Lawrence sticking her head in, the mob turning up and a head spinning amount of triple double crossing.
Insuperable on paper, but American Hustle hosts a surprising, almost inexplicable lacuna at its heart leaving a definitive sense of wanting at the end product that doesn’t match the top notch raw materials. There’s little doubt it’s a good film, that however is the problem, everything is just good, 7s across the board. After the brilliance of Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter David O Russell has become a victim of his own success, American Hustle never matches its precursors’ levels of character depth or personal strife, or an intensity needed for the audience to believe the protagonists’ lives impinge on every decision.
With a cast as talented and versatile, and large, as the selection at Russell’s disposal the real difficulty is in managing them on screen, weighing up who will get the prominent role, if any, and how to develop them enough to stop caricatures forming. All do admirable jobs that are hard to falter without ever hitting the engrossing performances we’ve come to expect from them. A large part of the film’s opening half is devoted to context, slowly developing the characters with a noir-esq narration from the protagonists; it’s this matter of fact explanation of Irving, Polito and Sydney’s past that lacks the organic growth to allow the audience to fully believe in their larger than life lives.
We’re told Irving is a master conman but seldom do we ever see his magic at work enough to be taken in by the aura he’s exclaimed to exude, an air of confidence that has two beautiful women fighting over him much to our disbelief. The relationships involving Irving are crucial to the film, the fact that you can’t really comprehend why Amy Adams wants to be with this balding, bloated man harms the film’s foundations. Cooper and Lawrence fare much better, they’re much lively, humorous and all together intriguing prospects; the latter naively endearing, yet sadly under used. Big name co-stars support the leading quartet without adding much, even the ubiquitous Robert De Niro is little more than a reassuring cameo.
Just as the characters suffer from a personality crisis so does the story as it weaves between genres without ever committing to one. A love story shallowly opens proceedings before we’re whisked away into a heist movie with murmurings of a Goodfella-esq absurdity and danger, the film’s end leaves you wondering which one it was. For the con/heist to work there needs to be a target deserving of his fate, some callous millionaire, like Ocean Eleven’s Andy Garcia, who the audience can rally against, not nice guy Jeremy Renner whose only crime his helping the community too much. Additionally, the big revealing twist is clever, but it’s far from the explosive finale the lengthy build up warrants, in fact it would be adequate as mid plot taster rather than a moment to end on.
The fairly light hearted nature of the film makes it an enjoyable ride, albeit an overly long one, with some good comedy moments and some quality exchanges, usually involving the growing megalomania of Cooper, but the risk and fear doesn’t get cranked up at the appropriate moments to give the story gravitas when the chips are down. The vague threats of jail time and inadvertent violence aren’t heavy enough for there to be genuine concern for the characters. I’m not advocating gratuitous sex and violence, but a little closer to the bone would have benefitted the film, it promises a stylish, sexy, daring game of treachery that doesn’t ring true.
It’s a sad indictment of the level of film in 2013 when American Hustle is dominating the award nominations, inferior to Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter yet looking even more successful. This review has been harsh in its tone towards the film, perhaps unfairly so, but from the potential on and off the screen it’s a disappointing end result. Had a lesser cast and director produced American Hustle it would probably be a solid, entertaining film well-polished in its attention to period details. For its two hours plus American Hustle’s pace is too pedestrian and explanatory for its scope, the ante needs to be upped in light of a busting climax, instead we get a good film with an underutilised cast and story.
7/10- More Bustle than Hustle