Wasting no time in capitalizing on the success of Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell returns a few days short of a year later with American Hustle, a promising film that nonetheless shows its rushed nature. Packed with stars from his previous effort and the one before that (The Fighter), the ensemble is frequently a delight in their ridiculous ‘70s hair and wardrobe, but a closer look reveals multiple levels of inconsistency that make its 138 minutes seem like a longer time in the theater.
Loosely based on the FBI’s anti-corruption operation known as ABSCAM, the film relies heavily upon Christian Bale who gladly delivers. His overweight, balding Irving Rosenfeld is a complete character, achieved through a physical transformation, speech pattern, and overall manner of carrying himself that, all together, is a major acting accomplishment. A glass replacement and dry cleaning entrepreneur who cons average Joes looking for a line of credit on the side, he finds a soulmate and business partner in self-made woman Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Donning a fake British accent and peddling herself as royalty, she and Irving make a fine team until they’re busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, with hair curled tighter than mattress springs).
Russell’s writing and direction up to this point are solid and only improve when Irving and Sydney agree to help the FBI bust bigger players in exchange for exoneration. Setting up hidden camera stings on Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and his politician cronies, it’s a pleasure to watch this talented quartet toy with one another, a game that grows more complex after Richie develops eyes for the flirtatious Sydney. Not knowing when to stop both professionally and personally, the cocksure Richie’s aspirations of greatness and the repercussions of these actions are where American Hustle starts to sour. Introducing higher stakes that bring sex, violence, and drugs into the equation, the material yearns for the stylistic direction and grime of a Scorsese or P.T. Anderson to make it breathe. Through Russell’s overly clean visuals, the film struggles to unite these darker aspects and has an even tougher time incorporating its attempts at humor into the mix.
Whereas Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain excelled at combining numbskull criminals with dark consequences and eventual comeuppance, American Hustle doesn’t know what to do and grows increasingly sloppy as a result. Key to this shortcoming is 23-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, more age inappropriate than in Silver Linings Playbook and far from believable as Rosalyn, the 39-year-old Bale’s wife and the mother of an elementary schooler. Prone to accidentally causing house fires yet unable for Irving to sexually resist, her wild card antics aren’t as outrageous as the story assumes and exist more as half-assed distractions in a steadily meandering story than the true complications they should be. Little more than cheap stunts, Lawrence’s version of the unhinged housewife is, like most of her recent work, obvious in its execution and along with her inability to sustain a New York accent comes close to ruining what’s left of the film.
Russell is too smart for such total annihilation, keeping one final twist up his sleeve that nearly negates all prior cinematic sins. It’s not quite enough to make up for a narrative that seems unsure of its destination and various sources of voiceover narration that muddle the operation, but it helps, as do memorable supporting turns by Louis C.K. and an unbilled Robert De Niro. Lost in the glitzy ridiculousness of these characters and the era at large, however, the filmmaker is ultimately blinded by the goods at hand. Unable to join them into a cohesive whole, his latest work is a missed opportunity, though a mostly entertaining one at that.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.
American Hustle is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.