A solid, throwback long con period piece with an all star A-list cast, David O. Russell’s American Hustle assuredly isn’t one of the best films of the year like many year end critical organizations and best-of lists are positioning it to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. It’s easy to recommend, well acted, and fun to watch, and I really don’t have many problems with it outside of maybe not fully being able to understand or buy into the hype surrounding it. I don’t know if this intro is a result of me just kind of shrugging the film off and saying “Yeah, that’s an alright movie” or the backlash of everyone cramming it down my throat and saying that I absolutely have to love it to death or there’s something wrong with me. Whatever. It’s fine. You’ll probably like it. That’s what matters.
The year is 1978 and bottom feeding con artist and dry cleaning chain owner Irving (Christian Bale) finds himself in a bit of a predicament. He’s been pinched by the feds for running a fake money lending organization with his former stripper/former Cosmopolitan writer lover Sydney (Amy Adams). The arresting official, Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso, is young, hungry, and out to make a name for himself as fast as possible. In exchange for leniency, Richie forces Irving to go undercover to lure bigger fish looking to make a quick buck. Their target: long time mayor of Camden, New Jersey Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a beloved figure in his community who might only be willing to take a bribe for the altruistic reason of helping to revitalize the Atlantic City boardwalk. Things get complicated when Irving starts to feel bad for Carmine, Sydney and Richie begin to have feelings for each other, and Irving’s divorce refusing drunken lout of a wife (Jennifer Lawrence) makes everyone’s life a living hell.
The only real issue with director and co-writer O. Russell’s work here is that it doesn’t go far enough outside of production design, prosthetic make-up, garish period appropriate costumes, late 70s pop culture references, and a great soundtrack to really distinguish itself from any other film ever made about con artists. It’s up to the cast to make this somewhat-based-on-a-true-story caper work as well as it does, since so much energy has been expended on the look of the film that the story comes across as so slight that it almost gets lost in the shuffle. The con itself isn’t all that exciting in terms of its inner workings because the characters are all so wishy-washy that the results and ultimate final betrayals can be seen coming from a fairly sizable distance. It’s the kind of film that will go out of its way to work in a scene where the famous Burger King “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce” jingle can be played or how Lawrence’s uppity housewife can wilfully disregard the warnings of not putting metal into one of those newfangled microwaves.
But while O. Russell clearly becomes more enamoured with his setting than his story (and maybe rightfully so, overall), the cast makes the film easy to enjoy. Maybe not so much Bale, who despite a garish beer gut and an even worse combover doesn’t really get to do anything we haven’t seen from him before, but at least Irving is an interesting enough guy to centre a film around. Cooper is a nice foil for Bale, playing a faux-do-gooder motor mouth that talks like more of a con artist than the criminal he surrounds himself with. Cooper also plays nicely off of Louis C.K. in an incredibly funny supporting turn as Cooper’s beleaguered and chronically put upon boss.
In a performance that’s been gaining a bit less buzz around Oscar time but is worth talking about, Jeremy Renner is quite good as a man who wants to do good things with bad money. If anything, he gets to play the only truly sympathetic character in the film that’s on the take. His portrayal of Carmine Polito as a man of the people and an everyday joe working outside the system to better his community is the best written role in the film, and Renner runs with it very nicely.
But admittedly, the film belongs to the women at the heart of it, which is almost a huge accomplishment since O. Russell has always struggled throughout his career to create believable female characters (only nailing it for the first time last year with Lawrence’s character in Silver Linings Playbook last year). Adams puts in some of the best work of her career as an intelligent woman allured by the danger of playing all sides and pulling the wool over the eyes of the men who underestimate her caginess. Lawrence, on the other hand and in a smaller role until the final third, finally gets to let loose with scenery chewing aplomb as a manipulative wife from hell that’s just now learning how to articulate her displeasure towards her husband. Neither woman is a saint, and both are portrayed as sexual dynamos, but both actors are throwing themselves into their work and they look like they’re having a blast doing it.
The third act adds a bit of danger that makes it an above average crooks and cops flick, but it’s just been such a competitive year that sadly, for me, a film like American Hustle just doesn’t chart as one of the year’s best. I’m not saying “don’t see it.” I’m saying “temper your expectation to a reasonable level and be pleasantly surprised.” I feel bad talking about a decent film only in terms of the buzz that surrounds it, but that’s all American Hustle is about in the end. Which, if you think about it, is really kind of appropriate in a backhanded way.