David O. Russell isn’t the guy who makes quirky indie comedies anymore. Russell is in the Oscar Bait business, these days. Right after “Silver Linings Playbook” finished cleaning up awards, Russell and co. got to work on “American Hustle.” Originally entitled “American Bullshit” and loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, the film combines the seventies setting of “Argo” with the relationship drama of “Silver Linings Playbook.” With a cast packed full of previous nominees and winners, it’s unsurprising the movie wracked up a shitload of nominations. It will be even more unsurprising when the movie inevitably walks away with several wins on March 2nd. However, myself and many other reviewers have wondered: Is the movie actually good?
“American Hustle” is truthfully two very different types of films stitched together. The main plot concerns conman Irving Rosenfeld and his mistress/partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser. The two are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso, forcing the two into a plot to catch New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito and his bribery. The other plot involves the complicated, interacting romantic relationships of the character. Irving loves Sydney, despite being married to his shrewish wife Rosalyn. Sydney eventually gets swept up in a love triangle, as Richie quickly develops an attraction to her. Rosalyn eventually winds up with a very minor character. Amazingly, the movie resists pairing up the Mayor with the crazy cat lady or something. This balance is set up during the very first scene, as a money switching deal is complicated by the cast’s romantic entanglements.
The tonal shift of the crime plot works decently. The humor frequently deflates most of the suspense and not in a positive way. For example, DeNiro’s mob boss is introduced with a violent flashback where he randomly shoots a dude. Bob winds up being a one-scene character, all that build-up pretty much for nothing. Scenes involving Louis C.K. as Richie’s boss are hopelessly awkward, plot mechanics dressed up with character humor that feels as fake as it is. Sometimes, the lighter scenes make for a decent contrast. An FBI boss’ light-hearted reaction to a sudden setback is a good moment. Russell has, in the past, been good at balancing the comedic and dramatic. “American Hustle” is not his best job in that regard but, occasionally, it does work.
Lawrence gets her Oscar-clip moments, a cry in a corner, a plot-advancing monologue on a bed. But it’s too little, too late. Lawrence’s over-the-top theatrics are detrimental to the over-all-film. It’s a good thing the movie is based on a true story because, otherwise, we’d never believe such a selfish, terrible human being could ever exist. Sorry, Jennifer, you look lovely but you better not win an Oscar.
The film’s performances are generally pitched at a high-level. Even the usually subtle Amy Adams screams for no reason while inside a disco club’s bathroom. Adams probably gives one of the better performances in the film. Her fake-British accent slips throughout, which makes it unbelievable when she drops the accent in-story. Still, Adams uses the withering glance she perfected in “The Master” to good effect. It’s effectively used to kill boners a few times. Similarly, she has decent romantic chemistry with both of her male leads. A moment where her and Bale try on clothes in the back of his dry-cleaning building is sweet and funny. She seduces Cooper in a hotel room, climbing on top of a bar, beckoning him closer. Of all the performances in the film most likely to win an award, Adams is the one who probably deserves it.
Bale does a good job. Sure. But the best performance in the film is the one that has been widely overlooked. Jeremy Renner doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his role in various action blockbusters. His dry delivery of sarcastic one-liners made otherwise uninteresting characters watchable in “The Avengers” and even, yes, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” In real life, Mayor Angelo Errichetti was involved in several criminal empires. His fictional counterpart is portrayed as the nicest guy in the movie. He cares about his community and is willing to break the law in order to help said community. His love for his family motivates him. He is a genuinely good human being, despite his bending of the rules. By turning the entire rest of the cast against him, it adds a degree of moral grey ground to the story, which winds up making the film more interesting then it probably would have been otherwise.
Which makes the film’s decision to cast him as the villain at its very end really strange. This signifies many of the problems that emerge in the last act. Like all movies about con artists, “American Hustle” has to pull a big twist out at the end. Turns out, certain characters you thought might have been working together are actually working against each other. Previous character development is tossed out in favor of “surprising” the audience. Throughout the film, Irving, Sydney, and Richie are against each other. Irving loves Sydney, Richie loves Sydney, and Sydney doesn’t seem sure who she loves. By the end, Sydney definitively picks one of the guys and any previous conflicts seem tossed away. It ends the film on a sour note.