David O. Russell is less a director these days and more of a machine designing movies specifically to win Oscars. It’s little wonder the man walked away from a Mark Wahlberg-led adaptation of the Uncharted video game series in order to…what else? Try and win some more Oscars.
He’s three for three in Oscar bait now between The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now, American Hustle. I would argue O. Russell’s strength doesn’t necessarily lie in making great movies, but creating great roles for his great actors to shine in. The Fighter was a tired sports movie comeback story that we’ve seen dozens of times, but the cast was simply fantastic in their roles, including Christian Bale who landed an Oscar for his part. Similarly, Silver Linings was kind of manic and all over the place, but it allowed Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to wow us by bringing two great characters to life.
American Hustle has a general outline already, being loosely based on historical events. The ABSCAM operation which led to the corruption conviction of a number of powerful government figures did exist, but it’s the added drama and the colorful characters that O. Russell brings to his version of the events.
“Which of our hair looks more ridiculous?”
The film itself is a rollercoaster, threatening to veer off the tracks at every turn, but held together by its core cast who all are tasked with playing roles far outside their norm. Christian Bale, ever the chameleon, gained a potbelly to play Irving Rosenfeld, a scam artist recruited by the government to take down corrupt politicians. His wife is the flighty Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who always manages to keep him wrapped around her finger, and his mistress is Sydney (Amy Adams) a stripper with a convincing British accent to give his enterprise apparent legitimacy. Their racket is taken down by ambitious FBI Agent Ritchie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who wants to start his rise to the top by entrapping local New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and moving up from the chain there.
The cast is absolutely stellar, as you can tell, and almost all of them have been nominated for an Oscar within the last few years. Add in some great period costume work, Bale’s body transformation, and a true, ridiculous story, and American Hustle almost reeks of being engineered to win awards. Not that it makes for a bad movie, just a calculated one.
Much like the central “heroes” of the story, Irving and Syndey, the movie appears smarter than it actually is. As you’re watching their scheme with the FBI escalate to increasingly insane proportions, it’s hard to tell whether it’s all part of some master plan, or if it’s exactly the disaster it seems to be.
Zero bras were involved in the making of this film.
And most of the time, it’s a disaster, through and through, and Irving is barely holding on by his nails not to get blown away by the chaos of it all. His genius only kicks in the last few minutes of the film, and the rest looks sort of like a jumbled mess by comparison. American Hustle starts slow and probably has a bit too long of a lead-up, but once it goes over the hill, it’s head-spinningly fast in how quickly it expands in scope.
Again, it’s the performances, not the movie, that shine here. Bradley Cooper proves once again he can roll with the big guns, though his character is probably the least memorable of the five major stars. I quite like Renner’s Polito, but obviously Christian Bale will be the focus of most of the film’s acting praise. The opening scene of him carefully grooming his comeover is one of the best of the year, and an odd reverse mirror to the meticulous morning routine of Patrick Bateman he showed us in American Psycho.
Amy Adams’ character may confuse audiences with her constant switching between American and British accents, but it’s one of her better roles to date. And it’s odd to say that though Jennifer Lawrence was obviously miscast due to her age (she looks seventeen and Christian Bale looks 47), she’s the most engaging, hilarious, fantastic character of the film whenever she’s onscreen. It’s different than anything we’ve seen from her before, as her previous roles in Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games and even Silver Linings are all relatively mute and/or anti-social. Here, her Rosalyn is the polar opposite, and is the perfect ditzy foil for Bale’s Irving throughout the film.
American Hustle is a halfway decent movie with a handful of great performances. Ideally you’d want greatness all around, but that’s not always possible, and this is an acceptable compromise. It is a little better than watching Scorsese try to win Leo DiCaprio an Oscar ever year, I suppose.
4 out of 5 stars