Unfortunately, American Hustle is no masterpiece. In fact, it’s a bore. It’s a fictionalized account of Abscam, a late 1970s-early 1980s FBI sting which, in real life, resulted in convictions for about a half-dozen members of Congress (including a Senator).
Great. Here in the movies, it’s an excuse for Russell to get together with his pals—all the stars with names above the title have worked with Russell before, save Renner—and have their characters shout at each other while the camera moves quickly and often.
It’s exhausting. There are no stakes. There are wigs and braless dresses and fat suits and perms. There is nothing resembling a compelling character or story.
Indulge me for a moment: Remember Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979)? In it, the always-underappreciated Roy Scheider plays Joe Gideon, Fosse’s alter ego. At some point, Gideon has a massive heart attack and is supposed to be recovering in a hospital. No excitement. No vigor. No nothing.
Instead, Gideon has over friends, swills champagne, secretly smokes cigarettes in the bathroom and gets his assistant editor to walk around topless. He’s having a ball at the expense of his health.
That’s American Hustle. Working with old friends and colleagues? Grand. The finished product—the reason they’re together? Meh (and that’s being generous—after all, it’s goddamn Christmas).
American Hustle has the bones of a good movie. Bale (doing a ham-fisted Robert De Niro-lite, if two such opposing choices can live within one performance) is Irving Rosenfeld, a Bronx-born dry cleaner-owner and con man who scams dopes into giving him money with false promises of providing big loans. He’s joined by Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) a con woman who fakes an English accent and lures the dopes with her good looks.
Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is a low-level FBI agent who’s on to Sydney’s game. He arrests her. In order to avoid prison, she agrees to help Richie set up a sting. She gets Rosenfeld to help. He and Richie hate each other. Shouting ensues!
Then there’s Lawrence. In a classic case of miscasting, she’s a mid-30s shrew of a housewife, married to Rosenfeld and determined to make his life difficult. And despite her miscasting, she’s good—Lawrence has the talent—but there’s just nothing believable about her marriage to Rosenfeld, her jealousy of Sydney, and the way she plays him to get what she wants.
Oh, and Renner is the mayor Camden, NJ. He’s modeled, sort of, on then-mayor Angelo Errichetti, whom he looks nothing like. But he does some shouting (a Russell mainstay).
Maybe American Hustle is itself a hustle. Maybe the filmmakers, including Russell and co-writer Eric Singer, got together and said, “Hey, we’ll do this movie with big stars. And then we won’t give them anything to do. But we’ll move the camera a lot and we’ll have them scream at the tops of their lungs, and everyone will think we made art.”
That’s a big maybe; the screenplay’s authors have an “and” between their names, indicating they didn’t collaborate. Maybe Russell conned himself into thinking he made a great movie. In reality, it’s dull. There are entire scenes when Adams stands there with nothing to do. And it also has a garish trick ending that’s straight from the school of lazy plotting.
One bright note: Comedian Louis CK plays Cooper’s haggard boss, and he’s excellent. He’s the one person not in on the joke, playing his character straight and hitting the right tone. Something’s amiss when Louis CK, a fine actor in his own right but with limited experience, makes the seasoned pros look like goofs.
Skip American Hustle. Re-watch Goodfellas.
Directed by David O. Russell
With Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14