LOOK, it’s a bird, it’s a comedy, it’s a romance, it’s a drama, it’s a crime film. NO, it’s American Hustle. David O. Russell’s, director of Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, crime satire-drama thing America Hustle is smart and flashy like Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfield, yet tonally is left as grotesquely mismatched as the pot belly Bale rocks for his role. Pastiche, the Frankensteining of genres, is the custom in Hollywood nowadays and works exceptionally well when properly executed. American Hustle plays with genre bending and with you, not your heart, but with something you’re not allowed to have as a critic: Expectations. Those expectations gnaw away at you while watching this film, as its slow and superfluous beginning doesn’t come off as entertaining or impactful as the critical buzz has promised. In this sense American Hustle succeeds in imitating the type of confidence trick that Irving Rosenfield would be impressed with, conning the audience into thinking that a pretty damn good film is a great one.
American Hustle is the somewhat true story of conman Irving Rosenfield being forced to work for the Feds to capture corrupt politicians. The film stars among many, Bradley Cooper, our beloved J-Lawr, Christian Bale in yet another bodily transformation, Jeremy Renner, and Amy Adam’s magnificent side-boob.
Pretty much every actor in the film is at the top of their game with a nod to Christian Bale for spending as much time giving psychological depth to his character as he did on eating pounds of Wonder Bread. Jennifer Lawrence (who some may say overacts) is funny and fun, bringing another level of playfulness to the film, and showing why she continues to be my top candidate for a marriage proposal and a future presidential nomination.
It can’t be stressed enough that these actors are everything. The directing/cinematography tries to keep up (a notable emblematic close-up that pulls out to a long shot giving some aesthetic flair), however, it lacks the art(ifice) and style one would expect from a film so heavily invested in the con artist. Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced that Russell’s script is deserving of a best original screenplay nomination. It’s the energy and talent of these actors that gave a dry script the strokes of genius it needed to give it the look of a master work.
One of the most engaging parts of any crime film is the prep-work. Assembling the team. Gathering resources. Finding the marks. American Hustle has its own take on prep-work: Character backstory and narration heavy exposition. Yes, I can’t believe that I’m knocking the film for an attempt at character development. Yet, 20 minutes of the film are wasted on filling us on backstory that could have been easily done in five. The narration is well written, cleverly acting as something like a filmic version of free indirect discourse, but it doesn’t excuse it for creating the want for a fast-forward button. This type of exposition seems more at home in a tragedy or straight drama where lives are actually at stake and characters must live with the consequences of their actions, where the need to make us care is of utmost importance. Do we come to care about these characters? Yes, and could have done so without the extra exposition. The characters are so effectively brought to life by the actors, and given so much personality that incessant backstory is unnecessary. It’s about 30 or 40 minutes into the film that it really hits its stride and you see the reason for its high praise. American Hustle’s soul seems to appear when it sweeps you up into the period music, fashion, and 70’s fervor, handing us our next drink before we finish the one in our hands.
The marketing for the film is a bit misleading, as it doesn’t fit into the popular conception of “comedy.” It isn’t a ROFL kind of comedy. The film is funny, clever, and entertaining just usually in the dry humor kind of way. Structurally, it’s undoubtedly a comedy: Begins with disorder, worsen as poop hits the proverbial fan, and then ends in some semblance of order. The problem is that the film seems uncertain as to what it wants to be. The instances of very serious drama are out of place and seem to be blatant ploys to add tension and get the viewer to care. The actual crime part of the film is given little attention in favor of actually hilarious scenes about microwaves, ice fishing, and J-Lawr seducing us into her cult. The metadiscussion of filmmaking as the great Hollywood con is there, but like most of the intriguing parts is dropped as soon as Russell sees another shiny narrative element to obsess about. American Hustle is about con artists struggling to play others and find an identity, so it would make sense if the film took a similar approach to its own being, but that possibility in some instances seems more like a lucky a coincidence of a sloppy script than a cleverly planned con(fidence) trick.
When American Hustle is at its best, it’ll leave you high and drunk on its gregariousness, wit, and talented acting. When it’s meandering and trying to get started, it’ll leave you with misgivings like that last time you snorted too much of that white power (What, was that just me?). That being said, the film is a fun one. Is it worthy of all the grandiose critical praise it’s receiving or is it pulling a fast one? For my money, and yours too for that matter, Irving was right: People believe what they want to believe.