I kind of want to not like American Hustle. It’s an overlong and uneven film that has some of my cinematic pet peeves (multiple characters talking all at once for too long is a kicker) and a story that jumps around in tone and pace like a hyped up frog on a lily-pad of hot coals. And yet, I like it. Under David O’Russell’s solid direction, this is a strange film which, through the grace of giving more attention to its characters than its story, becomes entirely engrossing even if it feels like it’s all for show.
The story is a convoluted one. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, almost unrecognisable) and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) have been running a small con operation to great success until they’re busted by a zealous FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). They’re offered a chance to escape jailtime if they assist Richie in making some busts on larger criminal figures, and Richie has his sights set on mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
Richie’s a hot-headed and egotistical man who constantly changes the terms of their deal and whose eagerness to make a name for himself constantly threatens the operation, with a mix of his incompetence and inability to think things through. The other spanner in the works is Irving’s ditzy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
The bare bones of the story (and they are bare) mostly centre around the planning of the sting operation (setting up a series of bribes for government officials to entrap them into arrest) and the heightening escalation of the stakes (the plan is jeoopardised with the arrival of a deadly crime boss played in cameo by Robert DeNiro) and as the film goes on it does get a bit tricky to follow; not in terms of understanding the plot, but in keeping track of exactly who they’re going after and just how risky this particular situation is in contrast with others, etc.)
But the story is secondary to the film, as its main focus (and admitted as such by O’Russell, if the IMDb trivia page is to be believed) is its characters, and that’s definitely where the appeal of the film lies.
The characters in this movie are not brilliantly established, but they’re used more for how they interact with each other than who they actually are as characters.
The standout for me was Bradley Cooper, whose Richie DiMaso is an insufferable moron with little to recommend him. He’s a good example of a pathetic character who isn’t projected solely from how pathetic he is. He thinks he’s a big-shot when in fact he’s barely doing his job properly, and he thinks he’s a noble man with an ideal of justice when in fact he’s actually running an overblown operation that isn’t going to guarantee much of a significant blow to the corruption in New Jersey. There’s a lot of fun to be had in his dealings with his boss, Stoddard Thorsen (played by Louis CK in one of the film’s best surprises) and how he somehow manages to worm his way out of fireable offences by turning on his charm – which Richie probably sees as genuine charm, but is more of an aura of stupidity that confounds those around him.
Cooper doesn’t play DiMaso as a pathetic man though, and doesn’t imbue him with an inferiority complex or any other such cliché – it’s a committed performance to making an unlikable character both interesting and very funny to watch.
Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is another interesting one. He’s a deeply methodical man who gives a great deal of thought to all of his actions. He’s also an insecure man (he’s overweight, balding and has a tricky heart) with a genuine sense of devotion to Sydney and the son he has with Rosalyn, although less so to Rosalyn herself. The film sets up the contrast well between him and DiMaso (each man is clearly meant to be foils for the other) and the way they play off each other with intense irritation is also a very interesting and funny dynamic.
The film’s opening sequence shows Irving doing his hair with painstaking attention to detail, setting a toupee in place and methodically gluing his other hair to hide it with excruciating attention to detail. He then dresses in his suit and prepares himself for the upcoming sting operation, only to have Richie burst in, in a moment of temper and confront him over what Richie perceives as Irving undermining him. Richie, irrational and impulsive, threads his hand through Iriving’s hair and screws it up completely; the resulting death glare from Irving is intense and hateful. It’s a great establishing moment that sets the tone of the film well (very funny with a hint of seriousness underplaying everything) and also of the dynamic between the two men and how they’ll be played off each other for the majority of the film.
It also introduces us to Amy Adams’ Sydney. Sydney is a girl who’s running away from her previous life but happens to find and fall in love with Irving on the way. Much of the early scenes in the film showcase their budding relationship – Sydney happy to have found a gentle soul in the form of Irving, Irving never quite believing his luck that someone as vivacious and beautiful as Sydney is with him, to the point where it comes as quite a surprise to hear that Irving’s married and that she’s his mistress on the side. It also shows Sydney getting involved with Irving’s con operation and creating the persona of Lady Edith Greensley, an English aristocrat whose supposed connections propel their con operation with an aura of authenticity.
Adams spends much of the film in the Edith persona and, after her arrest, decides that she and Irving need to have an ace up their sleeve if the deal with the FBI goes south, begins wooing Richie over so that she can use his affection towards her to their advantage.
Jeremy Renner is on top form as Carmine Polito, a crooked politician whose crookedness only comes out of a genuine devotion to revitalising the economy of his constituency. He’s passionately devoted to creating jobs and getting his community back on its feet and a legitimately nice guy with good intentions. He has a charming sense of naïveté to him and brings home the moral sensibilities of the film: that no one in this situation is really a good or bad person, just people who happen to be falling on one side of the law or the other.
Carmine and Irving end up hitting it off well, and there’s a nice scene where Carmine, fully believing that Irving is assisting with his plans to revitalise his community, gives him a microwave (“science oven”) as a token of gratitude. Irving questions why Carmine is specifically giving him a microwave, and you think it’s about to become a moment where Irving gets offended due to his weight, but Carmine talk about how he finds the technology amazing and wants to share it with Irving. Irving (and the audience) is touched by the gesture and it plays very nicely. Even though Irving isn’t in particular need or interest of a microwave, he’s still very upset when Rosalyn blows it up by trying to cook a dish with aluminium foil on top of it.
Jennifer Lawrence makes Rosalyn a hard character to endear yourself to. She’s nagging, irascible, selfish and lazy, and perilously close to an outright stereotype of a Joisey housewife. Yet at the same time, Rosalyn is more than aware of her husband’s less than legal dealings and clearly pissed off at being disregarded in his life. When I described her as ditzy before, this is probably one of the more realistic depictions of it. She’s not a vacuous moron, just inattentive to important things. It leads to a good running gag where she’s constantly setting things on fire, but it also means that she’s a volatile character in the context of Irving’s situation and his attention to detail.
When she meets “Edith” she’s instantly aware of who she is in relation to her husband and it brings out a petulant, aggressive side to her. Rosalyn is essentially an adult with the temperament of an intemperant teenager. This would be easy to play as complete cliché, and though Lawrence does come close to that at times (though a very solid performance from her, I found Rosalyn to be a bit one-note) it doesn’t make her a reprehensible presence on screen. Some of the movie’s funnier moments come from her, in particular the way she’s suddenly able to put a positive spin on some actions that lead to her husband being accosted by gangsters, as though it was her plan from the start. It’s also worth mentioning that Lawrence gives a committed performance to not making Rosalyn a glamorous sex-kitten that some of the trailers would have you believe – a lot of her scenes are just lounging around her house with a certain indignity.
The characters in the film are solid (if not the strongest ever created) but they’re let down by a story that jumps around in tonal style. This seems like the sort of movie that would typically start off light and airy and then descend into more ominous seriousness as it goes on; it doesn’t, and in fact maintains its more humorous approach throughout the majority of the film, but it’s inconsistent with the mindsets of its characters in relation to the beats of the story.
Sydney is the worst affected by this; halfway through the movie she starts an Ophelia-esque descent into wild mindedness that might’ve made sense if it was about her getting to immersed into her dual identities as Sydney and Edith, or if it had been played more into her sense of fear of incarceration (which is portrayed well in the scenes of her arrest at the start of the film, but largely forgotten afterwards) but in the final film it sort of comes out of nowhere; it might have been expected that the film play her relationship with Richie with a certain degree of ambiguity, so we weren’t sure of whether her loyalty lies with Richie or Irving, and her increasingly fragile mind could have been played as a) part of the show or b) a justification for why she might have made a choice between either man, but it’s simply not.
Rosalyn also gets a scene a bit like this, where she’s confronted by “Edith” and has a teary soliloquy about the state of the world – she’s drunk and upset about having discovered Edith at the same event, so it makes a bit more sense – but it still comes seemingly out of nowhere and does little to drive her character forward. It goes a small way to explaining some of her actions, but could’ve been substituted with a different scene or left out entirely with little impact.
These scenes, coupled with the fact that the actual meat behind the story is surprisingly absent (it’s very loosely based on a true story but heavily fictionalised, gleefully admitted by the film’s opening card, “Some of this actually happened”) end up feeling a bit like acting for the sake of acting – by which I mean that it’s a bit like those scenes in movies where there’s a dance-off and characters step up to bust out a few impressive moves before someone else steps up to different yet equally impressive moves – just substitute dancing with acting. In the end, while it’s done very well, much of the film seems to be done all for show.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It does mean that, at the end of watching the film, it seems to all be largely irrelevant. This was a really enjoyable film, but I feel like if I never see it again, I won’t necessarily be missing out on much. But it’s also a good thing in as much as film itself is a good thing. David O’Russell as a director, while not to everyone’s taste, is arguably building up a repertoire of film that could be considered a showcase of the more “auteur” style of filmmaking. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine American Hustle as something of a big-budget, well polished new New Wave film. And viewing the film from that angle means that its inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies aren’t necessarily a bad thing, just different to what might be expected from more conventional faire.
It’s also a film that could exist solely as a particularly loving paean to 70s high-fashion, and lovers of costume-porn are going to have plenty to gush over. The film is dripping in style, both in its costume design and editing (O’Russell has clearly had a lot of fun with seeing how much he can cut back and forth between the film, and along with multiple voice-over narration, there’s more of a sense of the New Wave commitment to reminding an audience that they’re watching a film.)
It’s overlong and inconsistent, and the progression of the story doesn’t always make logical sense in relation to what’s happening with the characters, but it’s definitely a film that’s been made with good intentions. The cast are clearly having a lot of fun, the characters are unusual but interesting and it’s a stylish execution of a film. It’s definitely worth seeing, even if seeing it just the one first time might be more than enough.