Uninspiringly, the film starts not only with a variation of the true story basis insinuation (“Some of this actually happened”), but also with a jump into the middle of the plot, with characters immersed in a crisis. It must then retrocede to originations for each role before meeting back up with itself. This incredibly tired gimmick is quickly becoming the norm in theatrical timelines, which is particularly frustrating when the opening scene doesn’t lead up to the climax and isn’t a rivetingly integral moment.
On April 28th, 1978, at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) dons fake hair and a very ’70s suit to join disrespecting, manipulative boss Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent forcing him to aid in a corruption sting on Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). They’re joined by Irving’s girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, brandishing permanent cleavage), who devises a love triangle scheme to play both semblant opponents. The operation is on the verge of falling apart as Richie is derogatory, pushy, and overenthusiastic, alerting Polito’s sensibilities on shady activities.
Through flashbacks, Rosenfeld chronicles his upbringing, his glass repair, dry cleaning, and stolen art businesses, and his introduction to Sydney at a swim party over their shared passion for Duke Ellington. The two strike up a passionate romance that blossoms further from their collaboration as con artists, swindling clients out of fees for loans they are purposely unable to secure. They form a front called London Associates (with Sydney using the Englishwoman alias Edith Greensley) to scam greater numbers of marks. Rosenfeld also details his unstable, passive-aggressive, estranged wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), with their young son in Long Island. When they target undercover FBI agent DiMaso, they’re arrested and held for three days. Being unequaled at forgery and deception, they’re released under the condition that they aid the FBI in four busts of bigger fish – of the political and organized crime kind.
Stylized editing is utilized to create a sense of quirkiness, spontaneity, and humorous wackiness, giving “American Hustle” a grounding not in reality but rather a comical, fantastical, insincere fiction, with an absent tone of severity and mortality (even though casino gangsters unafraid of shedding blood play a central role, highlighted by Robert De Niro as a mafia killer). It’s simply not dark enough – or perhaps not goofy enough. Commitment in one direction or the other would have been largely welcome. Light narration by Rosenfeld is reminiscent of “Goodfellas,” though “American Hustle” throws in an extra, unnecessary perspective via a supplementary track from Prosser. Casting comedian Louis C.K. as FBI supervisor Stoddard Thorsen (with an unpredictable ice-fishing running gag) adds to the unweighty disposition, along with cynical dialogue, dated but groovy music, and awkward slow-motion montages. The love triangle is occasionally serious, however, intruding at inopportune times to present crucial drama and complicate the stratagem.
The performances are of the magnificently convincing kind, where actors lose themselves amongst colorful creations (Bale once again changes his weight drastically to physically fit the part). But the running time is overbearing, with circuitous plotting that can’t help but borrow its convoluted intricacies, mismatched joviality, and big reveal from “The Sting” (or Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” itself derivative of George Roy Hill’s Best Picture winner). It’s also of no assistance that several of the characters are written to be excruciatingly annoying and that protagonists are nearly indistinguishable from antagonists. In the end, “American Hustle” feels like a film that is trying too hard to be clever, resulting in an experience that is more aggravating than rewarding, due to the boundless potential of the talented ensemble cast and David O. Russell’s directorial expertise.
– The Massie Twins