America is a land of invention and reinvention, where people believe what they want to believe – about themselves and everything and everyone around them. This grand American Hustle is re-examined by David O. Russell, in the guise of a strange but true story about con artists, the FBI, politicians, the mob and one of the biggest political scandals of the late 70’s. However, Russell’s version of it will be more well known for its clothes [or lack thereof] Martin Scorsese comparisons, and his latest works of magic with his four favorite actors – if not much else.
Irving Rosenfeld is a pudgy, comb over wearing small time con artist, who hustles while putting up with his severely loopy wife Rosalyn. But when Irving meets a kindred spirit named Sydney, who’s also looking to reinvent herself – in the guise of a wealthy English lady, no less – the two find prosperity in love and business. Yet business goes sour when they entrap the wrong man in FBI agent Richie, who forces them to use their talents in a series of sting operations. This culminates in a massive potential takedown involving the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, the mob, politicians and Arab money. However, Richie’s unstable ambitions – both for the deal and for Sydney – and Rosalyn’s suspicions threaten a lot more than just the sting.
Russell caps off a trilogy that turned him from a violate pariah into one of the most decorated directors today. What’s more, American Hustle is basically an all-star reunion of all his stars from The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. After getting Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence Oscars, as well as getting Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams nominations, Russell mixes them up anew and puts them in garish hairstyles, accents and clothes – or what often passes for clothes on Adams and Lawrence.
While Russell borrows from himself in his acting roster, virtually everyone who’s seen American Hustle – or even just the trailers – knows he owes a debt to Martin Scorsese too. However, it takes a lot to match Scorsese’s map cap style and dizzying action, as his own Wolf Of Wall Street is bound to prove next week. Not only is Russell a bit too muted, of all things, to match a Scorsese like rollercoaster, he seems to be missing the manic edge from his own Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as well.
American Hustle tries to make up for it by showing the big and small ways its characters, institutions and even its country hustles, deludes and re-invents itself to survive – even using nail polish as part of the grand metaphor. Given how this story is set not long after Watergate and Vietnam, the time and place certainly works as more than just a fashion show. Nevertheless, Russell makes his point well enough, yet still can’t resist driving it into the ground more than he should.
The oddest part of American Hustle is that Russell has every tool he needs to make his grand epic. However, Bale, Cooper, Adams and Lawrence are the ones who make it work more than he does, which is a weird paradox. Russell is a master at getting more out of these actors, and showing more sides to them, than almost anyone else can. Yet aside from giving them their showcases and showy characters, Russell struggles to provide an actual movie around them that is worthy of them.
Russell’s genius with Bale in The Fighter and American Hustle is to take him beyond the dour, growling image that Batman stuck him with. In fact, aside from the weight gain and the comb over hair – which in the opening scene, includes the most memorable stuck up piece of hair since Cameron Diaz’s in There’s Something About Mary – Bale is actually the least showy performer of the bunch.
If anyone is stable in this group, Bale’s Irving is it, even as he gets entangled in a bigger game than he ever imagined or wanted. Beyond the loud hair and gut, Bale is actually quieter, more heartfelt and more of a longing dreamer than we’re used to seeing from him. Since Bale transforms himself physically all the time, it’s become easy to take him for granted – especially in the midst of everyone else’s antics. Yet while Cooper, Adams and Lawrence have much of American Hustle’s raves and awards buzz, Bale may be the real grounding force of the film.
Russell brings out sides to Bale he doesn’t get to use often – and also brings out sides of Cooper that few expected he had. For the second time with Russell, Cooper goes beyond his Hangover persona and finds a deeper use for his fast talking, occasionally sleazy talents. As it turns out, when Richie gets particularly power drunk and obsessed, Cooper becomes even more unsettling and unhinged than in the first half of Silver Linings Playbook, only with no redeeming dance contest this time.
Yet while Bale and Cooper are the headliners, American Hustle really belongs to the ladies. For a good part of it all, it belongs first and foremost to Adams – lack of a neckline and convincing British accent and all. Russell was the first to show Adams’ tougher, sexier range in The Fighter, and she turns it into a full on master class here. One could watch Adams be seductive, scheming, vulnerable, soulful and desperate all day long – and her face often conveys the whole package all at once, to the point where it almost gives her cleavage a run for its money.
This makes it Russell and American Hustle’s greatest crime that Adams and Sydney are all but pushed aside in the second half. Despite Bale and Cooper’s contributions, Adams puts on such a showcase that one wishes the movie was more about her. But as it turns out, she passes the baton to the film’s other megastar actress in the second half, as Lawrence goes to more maniacal extremes than in Silver Linings Playbook, if possible.
Although Rosalyn is a ridiculous comedy relief character on paper, she actually comes closest to nailing the movie’s grand themes of self-delusion and invention. Despite being a flighty wild card, Rosalyn always finds a line of twisted logic to justify her behavior, and to escape facing responsibility for it. Whether she knowingly lies to herself or genuinely believes her excuses, it is hard to say. Yet as always, Lawrence is so open and full of life, while pouring everything she has into every little line and gesture, it makes Rosalyn both the most dishonest and honest character of the bunch – and maybe even its most unsympathetic and sympathetic.
Beyond Russell’s now typical troupe, he also has Jeremy Renner as the corrupt but well-meaning mayor, Louis C.K. in the most comedic moments of the movie as Ritchie’s skeptical boss, Boardwalk Empire veterans Shea Whigham and Jack Huston, and even Robert de Niro in a threatening cameo – another actor Russell is getting far more out of than anyone else lately. However, Bale, Cooper, Adams, Lawrence and their crazy characters are the whole show – which both keeps American Hustle afloat and exposes the rest of the film’s limitations.
When it comes to working with these actors and reaffirming their greatness in different ways, Russell has gotten it down to a science. When it comes to making an actual classic movie to support their great efforts, American Hustle hits a few more speed bumps. Yet with these actors and characters, and with this director that is so good in so many areas, it’s hard to fully sort out why they’re in a movie that’s only good enough – regardless of what the Oscars might say down the line.
American Hustle is nothing if not entertaining, and is worth it if only to savor the stars in their new and old elements. Russell has Bale going bigger and smaller than ever, Cooper going closer to the edge than ever, Lawrence being as thrillingly alive than ever, and Adams’ wardrobe and face speaking unforgettable volumes. But unfortunately for Russell and American Hustle, they set too high a bar for everything else around them.