Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert De Niro
However great all of the performances in American Hustle are, great performances do not a great movie make. This kooky tale of maladjusted thieves, sleezy politicians and unscrupulous government employees is rich with standout performances – particularly from proven powerhouses Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence – but director David O. Russell‘s identity as an “actor’s director” has taken precedence over his being an effective storyteller.
The film opens with a telling long shot in which Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is going about the delicate process of putting together his elaborate comb-over. He’s got little hair to work with – and the thatched mop he’s got to work with is straggly and thin – so he glues clumps of hair-like substance to rake the real hair over. The final product isn’t pretty but it’s better than before. This strange but captivating opening scene is an unintentional metaphor for the movie at large – a little bit of story, padded with movie-like substance, and combed over with the icing that is these great performances. It may look passable when all is said and done but you have to know that inside, it’s a bit hollow.
Post-comb job scene, we discover we’re in media res con, somewhere halfway down the line where Irving has teamed with Bradley Cooper‘s Richie DiMaso and Amy Adams‘ Sydney Prosser. They’re on their way to bribe a pompadoured Jeremy Renner‘s Mayor Carmine Polito because… well we find out later. But rather than set us on the edge of our seats with this choice to begin in the midst of things, we’re only slightly intrigued and are hardly left anticipating what the hell is gonna happen next. This isn’t Fight Club. There isn’t a gun in anyone’s mouth. So why bother starting somewhere down the line at all if that moment is just arbitrary? While this hardly creates a huge issue story or structure-wise, it is a symptom of the larger issues at play.
Since American Hustle is a story about con men told through the lens of various con men (Bale, Adams and Cooper each provide voice-over narration), we’re never really sure who is and who isn’t reliable narrator. While this worked wonders for the likes of The Usual Suspects (although I personally was never won over by that film), the effect here is exaggeratedly diminished and feels like a last-minute attempt to pull the rug from beneath the audience’s feet rather than an astonishing story turn.
As for the variety of voice-over work that seeks to fill in the blanks on character’s histories, backstories, relationships and anything else that passes for pertinent information, there is definitely far too much on the table. Having one narrator is fine (in the right circumstances) but having three is plain overkill. If anything, it’s an indication that O. Russell needed to patch up the narrative and beef up scenes shared between characters. Infamous as a story crutch, voice over is very hit or miss and here, it’s mostly a miss. Show, don’t tell. It’s filmmaking 101.
Even with all the disappointment found in the story’s patchiness, American Hustle does have one thing in spades: fantastic performances. Everybody in the cast shines in their distinctive roles, each throbbing with eccentricity and lighting up the scenes beyond anything going on behind the camera. Assured yet another nomination at this year’s ceremonies, Lawrence proves that her Academy Award was no fluke. Her haphazard Rosalyn is a revelation and whenever she pops up she steals the scene. Her riotous “science oven” scene is sure to be the talk of the town come Christmas.
Bale too is on his A-game, offering another performance in which he not only completely changes his body-type but his persona entire. Character-wise, he’s painted with complexity and jostles back and forth between empirical confidence and shady anxiety with the effortlessness of an acrobat. Physically, his swinty eyes and schlubby build is a whole new ballpark for the usually hunky Bale. Although he’s gained quite the reputation for his physical transformations, there’s always something more to his embodying his characters that goes far beyond physicality. The man is a chameleon and, once more, he’s able to convince us of that he is someone else entirely.
Cooper’s zany FBI agent Richie DiMago also steals scenes like its his job. His manic behavior and shotgun psyche are built for an actor’s showcase and Cooper doesn’t fail the character. While DiMago lacks the roundedness of Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook headliner, Pat, he is truly an actor coming into his own, proving that he can be oh so much more than just a comic actor. For her part, Adams also shows off why she is so valued in the thespian community even though the script doesn’t provide her with as many flashy moments as her co-stars. So though she tends to fall to the back of the pack in terms of wowing performances, she is still as solid as ever.
Smaller bit roles from Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Peña, and a quick, uncredited pit stop with Robert De Niro all have their moment in the sun and help to shape American Hustle into what could confidently be called the best ensemble performance of the year. As I mentioned earlier though, great performances are only one faction of a film’s impact and although the acting is this movie is grade-A stuff, the story lingers around a C.
You could probably also say that my expectations were too high going into American Hustle (I was ready to jam it in my top ten before even seeing it) but I don’t think that really accounts for all the disappointment found here. Just writing this review and finding out that the movie was over two-hours long shocked me. I hardly remember it being nearing two-hours and there was surely no need for the length in a movie that already felt light on story. Then again, maybe that fact that I didn’t notice how long it was is an indication of my enjoying the film. And don’t get me wrong, the performances are inspired, fine-tuned, and just plain lovely and the film itself is a lot of fun. Unfortunately though, it stops there. Instead of reaching for the stars, it settles with being fun and stuffed with great acting. Next time, I hope O. Russell pushes for that extra mile.