American Hustle, David O. Russell's follow up to hugely successful Silver Linings Playbook is an entertaining mess. It has moments of brilliance, moments of artistic confusion, scenes that are lovely and scenes that are completely misguided. While the cast is excellent, I'm only convinced of the greatness of one performance. Fortunately for the film, this ensemble's efforts are enough to entertain.
The film opens with brilliant line - 'some of this actually happened'. With the flood of 'based on true story' movies this was very refreshing way to open the film. The movie follows two con artist - Irving (fantastic Christian Bale) and his lover Sydney (Amy Adams, trying her best but failing). When they get busted during the con an ambitious an unstable agent Richie DiMaso (hilarious Bradley Cooper) offers them a deal - they help him con some political hot shots and they can walk away. He gets big arrests and fame, they are off the hook.
The film feels like Scorsese flick wannabe. Goodfellas and Casino vibes are all over it - quick cuts of people getting shot, fiery, unpredictable, sexy women, criminals, casinos, gambling, danger. O. Russell is not Scorsese, though. The film's biggest and occasionally fatal flaw is its wobbly script. According to Christian Bale much of the movie was improvised. He noted to O. Russell,
"You realize that this is going to change the plot greatly down track."
To which the director replied, "Christian, I hate plots. I am all about
characters, that's it."
Yes, well all of that is well but O. Russell's movie is completely deprived of backbone - credible, coherent story. American Hustle is a shaky construction, a house of cards ready to fall at any moment. It's a crime/con movie where cons are unbelievable and the big 'so that's how they did it!' reveals are deprived of impact because of dumb writing and inept direction.
What the movie works as, though, is light entertainment. I wouldn't call Hustle a comedy - there are several moments during which I laughed, but I laughed more during Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter. The film at least is never boring, it has some lovely sequences - best of which are the ones with Jennifer Lawrence's character wrecking havoc - and it sure is fun to watch.
While the film is ridden with puzzling decisions, some of them are so daring they really deserve praise - from Rosalyn, Irving's wife (Lawrence, fun but very overrated) kissing Sydney in the bathroom (which was apparently Adams's idea), Sydney screaming while sitting in the dirty toilet of the nightclub and unexpected Robert De Niro cameo, Hustle certainly provides moments that surprise you.
What makes Hustle a good movie is its fantastic ensemble - we have some very skilled actors making appearances, for example Jack Huston of Boardwalk Empire fame, as Rosalyn's new savior. Then we have the real show stoppers - Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. easily steal their scenes as goodhearted mayor and frightened FBI chief respectively. C.K.'s scenes are a laugh riot and also mark the heights of Bradley Cooper's performance.
What didn't quite work were the ladies - I'm stunned Lawrence and Adams are getting any Oscar buzz for their work in this movie. They are both good, thanks to their talent, but they are also miscast and the script isn't giving them enough to flesh out their characters.
Jennifer Lawrence is a good actresses. That said, she is also the most ridiculously overhyped movie star right now. The craze about her, which is even getting to director's heads, is actually starting to hurt her films - David O. Russell wrote the part of Rosalyn specifically for her to play. She is all kinds of wrong for the part - she is too young to be believable as Irving's wife. The fact that she also has a son only adds to how ridiculous that casting is.
Lawrence is good when the script is good - her recklessness provides few laughs and her scene with Jack Huston where she talks about hating change is fantastic. But there are also moments that are so bad it's literally embarrassing to watch - like awful scene where Rosalyn sings Live and Let Die. Really? She's getting awards for a performance that contains this scene?
While Adams is given more consistent scenes than Lawrence, she is not doing any better. I didn't buy her as this smart girl who uses her sexuality and wits to survive. There was something awfully fake about Adams's performance - even when Sydney was giving us glimpse of her true self, it all rang false. I don't mind Adams not wearing a bra of her bad accent - the worst crime here is how ill suited she is for the part.
Bradley Cooper on the other hand is very good as Richie - he makes him believable, he fits the part and he makes it all feel real in spite of hilariously awful hair. Richie is such a fun character - eating chicken alone in the bathroom, having a fiancee he doesn't even acknowledge, beating up his boss and really wanting to fuck Sydney. It's all so ludicrous but Cooper makes it work.
But the real star of the show and the biggest reason why this film is worth watching is Christian Bale. I've seen most of this guy's performances and it's his work like here as Irving - someone quiet, someone broken - that flourishes into Bale's best performances. He is a true heart of this whole thing - someone who wants to do the right thing, doesn't want good people to get hurt and ideally, keep the woman he loves in his life.
The love story between Irving and Sydney is the centre of the movie. There are some lovely scenes here - them kissing among abandoned clothes and later in the movie Irving standing there alone, remembering the moment. Unfortunately for the film, Adams has much better chemistry with Cooper than she does with Bale. I suppose I should be praising her for having the chemistry with anyone, though, after whatever the fuck that was in Man of Steel.
American Hustle probably won't end up in my top 10 of the year but I'll be very surprised if Bale doesn't make my line up. In spite of the film being entertaining it did feel like a let down.
There is plenty to like in the film - silly wigs, lovely cinematography, witty one liners and great soundtrack. If only Russell was more of a writer, more of a director and less of a fanboy and imitator, this could have been so much better.
(American Hustle, dir. David O. Russell, USA, 2013, 138 min)