Terrific performances, uneven story
Don’t get hustled by all the hype surrounding “American Hustle,” the latest critical darling to earn nominations (and likely Oscar awards), a film reminiscent of underwhelming fare like “The Tree of Life,” “A Serious Man,” and “The Kids are All Right” to name but a few.
Clearly “American Hustle,” based very loosely on the ABSCAM corruption case of the late 1970s, is a better film than any of those movies. As directed by on-a-roll David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook”), “Hustle” has an appealing panache up the wazoo that goes a long way toward compensating for its substantive deficiencies.
Part of that appeal is a result of a powerhouse cast, led by a paunchy Christian Bale, a faux-British accented Amy Adams in serious décolletage nearly the whole movie, a niftily permed Bradley Cooper looking like he’s been attacked by a Chia Pet, and Jennifer Lawrence, hilarious as a hysterical New Jersey housewife.
That said, there are serious problems with “American Hustle.” The film’s humor (snarky rather than broad) relies on the banality of its pathetic, rather than sympathetic, characters thus undermining its comic power. This is especially true in the film’s first half, which rambles on tediously while setting up the big con that goes down in the (much better) second hour.
Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) owns businesses (and a bad toupee), and though married to nut-job Rosalyn (Lawrence) he falls for a former stripper Sydney (Adams) who shares his love for Duke Ellington. They enjoy success in a fairly small time grifting operation until FBI agent Richie (Cooper) catches on to their scam and promises not to turn them in if they will help ensnare a likeable New Jersey politician (Jeremy Renner).
Backed by a terrific 70s soundtrack, the climactic events unfold quickly and recklessly, and while still a little long, the film finishes on an energetic uptick – with everyone pretty much getting their due. Surprisingly, save the excessive use of the “F-word,” the film carries a rather soft “R” rating, rare for films depicting that supposedly nihilistic decade.
Some smaller cameos round out a great cast that clearly trusted the very talented Russell’s direction — the leads have all done great work for him before. So while this may be an actor’s film, it is not necessarily an audience film, despite the awards that “American Hustle” is likely to win.
Rated R for profanity, sexual content, drugs and violence.