David O. Russell’s American Hustle opens with a truly elaborate combover. The year is 1978. The place is a New Jersey focused on economic rebuilding, specifically through revitalizing Atlantic City.
Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld and Amy Adams’ “Edith Greensly” (a faux-British aristocrat whose real name is Sydney Prosser) are lovers whose cons eventually force them to the other side of the law. After FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts them for fraud, the two agree to aid him in his crusade against corruption. They target idealistic Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as a means of entry to a web of political corruption. Unfortunately, what should build to an explosive climax fizzles out about halfway through Hustle‘s 138 minutes.
A story of smooth con artists dealing with personal and professional crises should be a reckless hurtle into the unknown. Yet, this one doesn’t even match the cleverness of the Ocean’s series signature plot reveals. The only truly urgent scene features Robert De Niro as Victor Tellagio, a vicious Mafia higher-up who senses something amiss about the group. For those few minutes, it seems like anything could happen. It’s a powerful feeling that shows what this movie could have been.
Predictably, Irving, Edith, and DiMaso end up in a love triangle after Irving refuses to leave his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Less predictable is the difficulty of discerning who is actually in love, who is in lust, and who is running another con. Even with this complexity, Rosalyn herself, the discarded fourth point, brings it all to life.
That imbalance defines the film. Every actor gives an impressive performance, but none of the three lead characters is particularly likable, even in comedic moments. I couldn’t care less who Edith/Sydney picked in the end or whether Richie redeemed himself. I wanted to see them through to the end, but I couldn’t focus on them. The pulse of the movie is in the supporting performances, particularly from Renner and Lawrence.
Renner’s Carmine Polito cares about his community; he believes in racial equality; he wants to help people. Irving befriends him and Carmine treats both Irving and Rosalyn as family. Carmine is perhaps the best person in the movie, and our would-be heroes are screwing him over. They know that Carmine is not some immoral politician; he initially walked away when offered a bribe. But they still prepare to take him down. I easily rooted for him over Richie.
And Rosalyn? Unhinged, perhaps, but captivating. We meet Rosalyn as a nagging, anxious alcoholic. I immediately hoped she would be in every scene for the rest of the film. Lawrence brings more emotion than any other actor in the film as a woman scorned – even if you can’t totally blame Irving for his affair. The performance is brutal, with raw pain interspersed with humorous jabs at the other characters and the world (not to mention microwaves).
(Like Lawrence, Louis C.K. provides some comic relief in his delightful minor role. His character, Stoddard Thorsen, attempts to assert his authority as Richie DiMaso’s superior, only to be ignored and literally attacked for getting in the way of DiMaso’s obsessive behavior. I’ll always wonder about his ice fishing story.)
American Hustle resembles Russell’s acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook. With strong performances, a solid script, and a talented director, these movies should have been excellent. Instead, something is missing. Jennifer Lawrence is the heart of both; in Hustle, she and the other supporting players keep the momentum going. But that’s not enough to make the final “twist” thrilling or even exceptionally interesting. Every aspect shows total competence, but too many moments lack clear inspiration.
A fine film, American Hustle could have benefited from some trimming and a stronger soundtrack. Luckily, the actors demand attention in every scene. It simmers rather than sizzles; you’ll have to see it yourself to see if it suits your taste.
MPAA Rating: (R), for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Run Time: 2 hrs. 9 min.