Poster

Don’t believe everything you’re told.

American Hustle is a movie where the characters and audience alike are unsure whether or not the wool is being pulled over their eyes. Judging by what I overheard while leaving the theater, many people got lost during one of the several twists and turns in the story.  David O. Russell might be among those lost.  Describing the plot of American Hustle as jumbled is probably an understatement and it also seems slightly disjointed, but that doesn’t completely detract from this character-driven drama.

And it is a drama—regardless of the current marketing of American Hustle as a comedy. Although there are some humorous moments, expecting more than a few chuckles will lead to disappointment. Instead, appreciate the good that is provided through phenomenal acting performances from the entire cast.

Bale

Christian Bale is masterful as Irving Rosenfeld—the schlubby, yet somehow stable keystone of this crumbling house of cards. Bale certainly deserves an Oscar nomination (even in what should be a crowded field) for completely transforming himself into a kinda creepy con artist that’s successful because he knows his limitations. Get in and get out. Irving is a man who attempts to justify his dirty dealings on the moral grounds that these are bad people who deserve to lose their money in his pay-to-play scheme.

American Hustle draws more than a little bit of inspiration from Boogie Nights and Casino—among others. Jennifer Lawrence plays Christian Bale’s wife, and her performance as Rosalyn Rosenfeld is unquestionably the best performance of her career. Rosalyn is a schizophrenic mess that’s eerily reminiscent of Sharon Stone’s character in Casino, but more entertaining because Jennifer Lawrence makes her somehow likable (dare I say, lovable) with a nuanced performance that’s equal parts subtle and eccentric.

Omelette

But Bale and Lawrence aren’t the only outstanding performers. American Hustle benefits from the entire cast putting forth their best efforts. Amy Adams is remarkable as Christian Bale’s side pussy and sham partner in these overly elaborate cons. Director David O. Russell comes across as in love with the clothing and hair that craft this period piece. Amy Adams as Sydney/Edith (I seriously lost track at one point) is often distracting because her character always wears an outfit with a plunging neckline.

Speaking of hair, Bradley Cooper’s perm is just fucking ridiculous. Christian Bale’s character has a laughable combover that requires three cans of hair spray, a glob of cement glue and what appears to be a brillo pad. But Bradley Cooper just blatantly stole Mike Brady’s perm. As a secondary character, Bradley Cooper plays coked out perfectly as obsessive FBI agent Richie DiMaso—also serving as a driving force for the plot.

American Hustle starts with a wink and a nudge as the title card says “Some of these things actually happened.”  The opening scene sees Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper trying to entrap Mayor Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner). After this scheme unfolds, the story is thrown in reverse and the audience is treated to about 30 minutes of the events and character development that takes place leading up to this special scheme. Personally, I don’t think this was a wise decision in terms of storytelling because it unnecessarily muddles the already confusing plot with too many moving parts to track.

However, the backstory is at times brutal and painfully boring so the opening scene instills some optimism that the train will get back on the right tracks. And it does that even if the transition isn’t ideally smooth.

My main issue with American Hustle is that too much time is dedicated to convincing the audience that this is serious and the stakes are high, but there are never moments that feel intense—which is unfortunate given the circumstances that need those moments to be gripping. The stakes just don’t seem that high.

Without a gritty texture or tuly evil, awful character, American Hustle fails to define itself in the same manner as the movies it resembles.  American Hustle missed that Joe Pesci element. In a cast of shady characters with unclear intentions, there is a faint beating heart hiding underneath this character study.

In particular, Jeremy Renner is ridiculously good as Mayor Carmine Polito. It would have been relatively easy to relegate this character to a run-of-the-mill corrupt political mannequin, but Renner’s portrayal comes across as someone who genuinely seems to care about the people he serves. Carmine conveys this message in several moments throughout the movie, which is important because his character transforms into the linchpin of the story as he’s trying to do anything possible to rebuild Atlantic City. The net just keeps getting bigger as they follow the money. In some aspects, Mayor Carmine Polito has a hint of Rod Blagojevich (former Governor of Illinios and oompadour aficionado) in him—both good and the bad. And that fucking hair! The interplay between Renner and Bale is awkward and amazing at the same time given the conflicted nature of their relationship. I cannot express how much I love how these actors mesh. It’s the one truly worthwhile element exclusive to this movie. Although these interactions lack intensity, the incredible acting keeps the audience engaged and waiting for the other foot to drop.

You never quite know what is coming around the corner.

Smoking

As the con becomes increasingly more complicated, you’re just waiting for the whole ball of yarn to come unraveled. Warning: you’re left waiting for a long fucking time. With a runtime approaching nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes, American Hustle is needlessly long and feels like an elaborate music video on occasion. I appreciate directors having the control to shape a film to their liking and ultimate vision, but this is yet another instance where an independent editor with a strong backbone and balls is desperately needed.

If you give me a machete, I could quickly hack off at least 40 minutes to reshape the story arc and make American Hustle exceedingly more bearable. Despite some unlikable characters and non-linear storytelling, American Hustle succeeds because of its phenomenal acting performances from the entire cast. You experience the stress mounting on the mind of Christian Bale’s character and you feel his anxiety.

American Hustle goes to great lengths to show the desperation of people who want to be someone else. While the story itself is nothing special, it doesn’t need to be in this case. Just enjoy some awe-inspiring acting that explores interesting characters, and forget how numb your ass is while you wait for it to end.

4 out of 5 stars

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