‘American Hustle’ (2013) Movie Review

American Hustle movie review
Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale in American Hustle
Photo: Columbia Pictures

I love the ’70s coiffures and clothes matched with some great performances, but the movie… that’s a different story. David O. Russell‘s American Hustle has issues with tone, repetition and ultimately a lack of reason for why I was even watching. I was never flat out bored because something would ultimately come along to reinvigorate a movie that feels like it’s on constant life support, but when a movie is only as good as its next scene it’s tough to get any overall enjoyment out of it, especially once you get to the end and the whole thing has led to nothing more than a ho-hum magic trick.

Very loosely based on the late ’70s FBI sting operation codenamed Abscam, that saw several political figures convicted of accepting bribes, American Hustle centers on con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are forced to save themselves from conviction by helping the headstrong and clueless FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in an operation initially targeting New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). As things develop, DiMaso wants to continually go bigger and bigger, despite Irving’s advice, as relationships begin to unfurl and tension mounts. Or is it really tension at all?

I had such a hard time grasping the tonal aspects of the film. Clearly much of it was meant to be funny (and it is), but how much is intended to be serious? Some scenes would introduce a tonal conflict as I couldn’t tell if what I was watching was dramatic or comedic, and it certainly didn’t feel it was both. Nothing felt real and therefore the emotional involvement is limited at best, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing per se. Perhaps the film is merely a piece of entertainment, meant to titillate and delight. It accomplishes this at times. There is plenty of laughter, but it comes in fits and starts and oftentimes feels like I’m laughing at the same thing over and over again.

Jennifer Lawrence is great as Irving’s neglected and off-kilter wife, Rosalyn, as she nearly burns down the house with their new “science oven” (aka a microwave) and is obsessed with a particular brand of nail polish she describes as smelling both “sweet and sour” and like “flowers and garbage”. Even though her relationship with Irving never feels real, she’s a strange little lady and I would have loved to have seen more of her, but at the same time I understand why she had to be kept to a minimum.

Bale is also great, delivering the best performance in the film, packing on pounds to play Irving as an overweight, schlubby looking guy with a dreadful combover. He knows the angles and Bale gives his character a believability others may not have been able to achieve. Opposite him, Adams bounces between an American and English accent with relative ease and adds a layer of depth to Sydney I felt was ultimately lost by the film’s end. Then there’s Cooper as DiMaso, a wild card character with his tightly permed curls, overcompensating swagger and reckless behavior. What does this all add up to? Not a whole heck of a lot.

Who are these people? Yes, two of them are con artists, another is a crazy FBI agent and Rosalyn will probably end up addicted to pain medication by the time she’s 40 if not sooner. But that’s “what” they are, not who they are and there is a difference. Beyond that, if I look at the film purely as a piece of entertainment in an effort to get in on the con, even that disappoints on a rather large level and after more than two hours I expect a lot more.

For a film that seems intent on keeping the mood upbeat and fast-paced, with kooky characters that are meant to be more fun than dramatically serious, why did American Hustle seem so one note and monotonous?

On top of the performances already mentioned, I enjoyed every moment with Louis C.K. as Cooper’s superior and a scene featuring a brief cameo appearance by Robert De Niro is one of the best the film has to offer. Otherwise it’s a film that seems to have too many balls in the air as it gets confused between being a serious drama and a goofy con operation. It wants to have its cake and eat it too, but it ends up a slop of tasty ingredients that never come together to make a tasty dish.

The production values are also great and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Promised Land) has a free-flowing camera that seems to have a mind of its own, wandering from the characters hands and feet and back to the main source of the action, making for an interesting attempt to keep things energetic. The editing, however, is a bit all over the place and even while the film runs close to two-and-a-half hours it seems things are missing, particularly character building moments for Cooper and resolutions for others such as Adams whose character’s insecurities seemed to go from being a major plot point to entirely forgotten.

Maybe the dysfunction came when Russell took Eric Singer‘s original script and turned what were once intended to be real life characters into caricatures. Perhaps it needed another polish to better define the characters and the tone of each scene, and if you’re going to begin in medias res please let it mean something. Here it’s just a narrative trick to try and jump start the film rather than give us anything to chew on, you can look to this year’s Rush and All is Lost for much better examples as to how to pull this off.

As much as I would like to say I enjoyed American Hustle, because I laughed a lot and there are moments of honest tension and drama thanks to the likes of Bale and don’t let me forget Jeremy Renner, but in the end it never comes together and I can’t say I feel much, if any, need to see it again.

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