Everyone in David O. Russell’s cinematic reimaging of the FBI ABSCAM scandal are trying to make good on a hustle. They dress up, they speak with fake accents, they play their parts, all for the endowment of a few dollars. That’s American Hustle. A film about how a dedicated con man and his talented mistress wound up working for an overzealous FBI agent, risking their lives in the process.
The ABSCAM operation that took place in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s is very complicated to explain. First and foremost, it is essential to stress how well Russell and his co-screenwriter, Eric Warren Singer, have tackled the subject. They’ve taken a very convoluted issue and presented it in the form of a manic and rather entertaining piece of cinema. But good screenwriting and confident direction only go so far. As is often the case with Russell’s films, the actors in American Hustle are chiefly responsible for the film’s success. Everyone involved commands his or her respective characters with the utmost conviction. There isn’t a misstep to be found in their choices, and the film flourishes because of it.
Cooper and Lawrence reprise their expertise of playing neurotic, impulsive people that they both played so well in Russell’s previous film, Silver Linings Playbook. In American Hustle, both of their characters also suffer from wildly humorous delusions of grandeur, which Lawrence in particular fleshes out with spectacular fashion.
At this point, it’s hard to come up with inventive ways to describe Christian Bale’s talent. The man is simply one of the best actors of this or any time. As Irving, Bale transforms himself to play the part, gaining an incredible amount of weight and sporting a God-awful “hairdo” to sell it. But beyond external appearance, Bale plays Irving as a man always a moment away from crumbling; constantly leaving the audience to wonder if he’ll make it through.
The intentions of most everyone in the film are clear from the onset. While those intentions may be altered or heightened due to the circumstance of the situation, I was always aware of where the characters were going. Which is precisely what makes Amy Adams the showstopper of American Hustle. I never had the slightest clue what she was up to. For instance, throughout the whole film, Cooper’s character doesn’t know Adams as Sydney Prosser. He knows her as Sydney’s fake British alias. There are so many layers to Sydney’s con, that I was never sure when and if the real Sydney would fully reveal herself to us. It is a performance of tremendous trickery and skill; I so loved being captivated by her deceit.
Now for some slightly less favorable news. American Hustle is being promoted as a crime heist thriller in the same frenzied vein as Goodfellas. Well, Goodfellas this is not. Similarly to Russell’s previous two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle is a revolving door of tone and emotion. The film switches from comedy to thriller to domestic drama without warning, frequently within the same scene. The camera is constantly moving and the editing never seems to stay with a moment as long as it should. This isn’t a fault of the material, but more with the directing style Russell has recently tapped into.
Before watching American Hustle, I went back and watched three of Russell’s films: Three Kings, The Fighter, and Silver Linings Playbook. I was saddened to discover that The Fighter and Silver Linings fail to move me in the way they once did. They are well made and superbly acted films, but I’ll have no reason to watch them again. Three Kings, with its slightly restrained style, is a masterpiece I revisit often. American Hustle is executed with the identical framework of The Fighter and Silver Linings, and, because of this, I fear that while I appreciate the film now, it won’t resonate with me as time passes. If you like the style David O. Russell has brought to his last two films, then I imagine you’ll enjoy American Hustle a great deal. Me? I suppose I wish his films were as strong and permanent as the performances they contain. B