The Premise: A Con Artist is enlisted by the FBI to help take down crooked politicians.
—— The Review
Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale (Newsies, 1992) came to being a con artist at a young age when he took it upon himself to break select windows in his neighbourhood so his father’s glass business would flourish. From that point forward he had been involved in fraudulent loans, art forgery and many other less than legal business ventures.
Although married with a step-son Irving falls in love with Sydney, played by Amy Adams (Drop Dead Gorgeous, 1999) and they partner up to bring in bigger marks for his scams but, their business ventures are cut short when the FBI catches on. Instead of jail time, FBI Agent Richie Di Maso, played by Bradley Cooper (Failure to Launch, 2006) enlists the two to help nab slippery politicians.
The more I think about this film the more uninspired I am to write a review. You are aware that all parties involved in American Hustle were at the top of their game and the immersion into their respective characters was enjoyed. You see the work of an able-bodied director going through the motions of creating a film but when the film ends you find that you are left wondering what it was all about.
American Hustle is Elmore Leonard without the charm. The joy of a good Elmore Leonard story is spending time in the beginning of the novel meeting each of the characters and learning their personalities and idiosyncrasies. Then around about the 100 page mark the brunt of the story begins; even Leonard said that he never knows where he is going with it until he gets there. That it is all about the characters first and once he gets in their world he brings them together and observes what they want to do.
But this film started out as a script with the characters already created and on a set pat that with all the character improv the main story becomes muddied and lost. It is no surprise that the wrap-up conversation between the FBI and the con-artists felt like it came up on the spot when the team realized they the movie was pushing 2 hours and nothing really happened. On paper, what we have here is a mish-mash of interesting characters arguably more interesting than the sum of its parts. A band of wacky sociopaths bumping in to each other like a Three Stooges short but none of the joy when they fall down.
One such scene begins the film, Irving Rosenfeld spends the pre-credit sequence painstakingly and methodically applying the correct amount of glue to his hairpiece, placing it on his bird’s nest bald spot and, finally micromanaging the remainder of his real hair over to blend it in. We think we are given a glimpse inside the character; Irving must be vain, he must have pride. This must come in to play later in the film yet it doesn’t. The entire set up leads to a punchline only 3 minutes later when another character ruffles the hair piece to rile Irving up.
There is a time and place for a film that has no story. One that is a character study and those films can have moments like these but in a film that has a story these only confuse the audience to thinking something deeper is going on. And that might be this film’s biggest weakness: nothing happens. The story is there but so much time is taken to have these little moments that you imagine were absolutely hysterical on set that the Director and Editor lost sight of the actual story.
The acting, though, is top-notch. Another remarkable physical transformation from our modern day Lon Chaney, Bale. You are mesmerized every scene he is in. The context he lays underneath every line is wonder to behold. Amy Adams, glides from personae to personae with little effort and with such panache that you find yourself missing her in the scenes she is not present. Jennifer Lawrance (Reddit’s r/funny, 2013-present) is superb. An almost unrecognizable Jeremy Renner (Dahmer, 2002) shines and, even Louis C.K. enjoys some choice scenes that are less schlub than he usually portrays. And, of course, replete in tight jerry curls, the always likeable Bradley Cooper brings a new level of grease to his slippery FBI agent.
The Production Design deserves to be up there in the Best Actor Category as well. Judy Becker’s design (Thumbsucker, 2005) envelopes the actors in a fully realized world, capturing the wet, gritty New York 1970s that was so iconic in such films as Saturday Night Fever, or Serpico. Triumphant in setting the mood and place for these actors to play in you will find you want to view the film again so you can play Where’s Waldo with the appliances you had when you were younger.
The film is filled with enjoyable experiences and, in truth, is a grand ride but does that make for a great movie? This reviewer says no. Of course, film should entertain and give one an escape and American Hustle excels at that. Much like Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street we are given a group of people who are completely out for themselves taking what they can from life which is a delight to revel in. But! Amidst that smoke and mirrors you shall find a story that is haphazardly filled with situations that you image had a distinct purpose on the page but somehow lost its centre when the improv came a-rolling.
Unlike the Wolf of Wall Street whose agenda was not to celebrate those selfish people American Hustle wraps up their story with a pink bow as if the audience cared that anyone in the film should win. Perhaps the director O’Russell fell in love with these characters after each of his superb actors embodied their roles so well that he could not ‘Kill his Darlings’ (to coin a phrase).
—— The Denouement
American Hustle is not a failure of a film. With the pitch perfect characters and the set design you will be in for a grand time. You cant help but grin as you watch and witness this merry band of fully realized people travelling through their lives. Certainly this is a film to see and enjoy.
In the end most people will have forgotten what happened before they start work the next morning which will cause them to pick the film up on Blu-ray thinking they liked it. They’ll throw it on that night and have a mildly enjoyable second date and one day, five years later it will show up in their Netflix feed and they will wonder, “Did I see that?” and forget to add it to their wish list.
James C. The Cold Open-BC