American Hustle is a bloody good film but falls short of becoming a great movie. But then it is just so much fun - which is great. The fun is not due to the story since David O. Russell isn’t exactly interested in the story but the characters. The film is essentially (and obviously) about hustlers. People putting on masks and performing, which is how most films are made and what filmmaking is all about. This film could be called “Stars in Costumes” and nobody would argue why, apart from how bad that title would be. For me, the fun came out of watching the music montages and witnessing these terrific actors spit out the fanatic dialogue - basically I loved watching them go crazy. It becomes better as a cheeky caveat at the beginning of the film suggests: “Some of this actually happened”.
American Hustle opens very well. Introducing us to Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld and Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser. They are our unlawfully wedded conman and woman. The first half hour is balls-out amazing. I was perfectly placed to enjoy the rest of the film but then came a twist as Jennifer Lawrence enters. Then another one when Bradley Cooper enters. The film is based on the Abscam scandal – a sting operation that helped the FBI catch many politicians in the act of accepting bribes. Called “Abscam” because the decoy was an FBI officer posing as an Arab sheikh – Abdul Rahman. (There is a hilarious joke in the film about it). The plot stumbles as the con artists and the FBI clash with each other and with their personal stories. It is messy but what a wonderful mess it is. Ultimately, it is cleaned up well with another twist.
Amy Adams does some of her strongest acting work to date. She is uninhibited, enchanting and buoyant. It’s hard to take your eyes off of Jennifer Lawrence because well… she is THAT good. When she shouts or falls off a chair or sings a Bond film song, it’s an adulterated cinematic high. Lawrence and Cooper both reminded me of their performances in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), in a good way for the most part, but sometimes in a bad way. I’m not the biggest fan of the Coops but he has come a long way as an actor. At the end of the day, if I had to pick one actor who I absolutely loved watching in this film, it would be Christian Bale. He is top notch.
Bale is quickly becoming one of the strongest actors of our generation. From a smashing debut performance (his best) in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) to losing scary amounts of weight for The Machinist (2004) to buffing up and pulling off a silly voice in a cool black suit in Nolan’s Batman trilogy and now becoming a pot-bellied felon. While I love my J-Law, I admit that this is the performance to behold in this film.
At the start of my review I mentioned that this film is almost great. There are a few narrative issues. After the Abscam plot takes over, some of the pacing and character motivations become blurry. Perhaps that is the point. The actors, while doing some tremendous acting work, don’t seem like they are at the behest of a story. It’s more of a show being put up than a story being told. Again, this is perhaps the point. There are tonal inconsistencies and (in a conventional sense) the plot/ character development takes a hit. Nevertheless, each scene is extremely interesting to watch in isolation. I have a feeling this film will improve on repeat viewings. In a parallel universe, I would have probably not liked this movie if I didn’t love the actors and David O. Russell’s filmmaking process. But let me not get into that, mainly because I don’t want to.
All the drawbacks take a back seat, as the music selected by Russell is the best soundtrack compiled since Almost Famous (2000). Watching the actors emerge in slow motion set to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is the highlight. Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper dance to “I Feel Love”, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner sing “Delilah” and Jennifer Lawrence goes crazy over “Live and Let Die”. I couldn’t take my eyes or ears off of them. Two more songs that are splendidly used are an Arabic version of “White Rabbit” and the ELO masterpiece – “10538 Overture”. These moments are utterly cinematic and there is an ecstatic display of what happens when images are coupled with music.
David O. Rusell loves crazy. His Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter (2010) and I Heart Huckabees (2004) don’t have any demarcations for mental stability. When people let loose in his movies, they really let loose. All this is done under the garb of genre conventions. He may pick a romantic comedy, sports film or a war film but his characters are idiosyncratic and eccentric. He reminds me of Sidney Lumet and how he extracted great performances out of his actors each time. This is his Network (1976). It is also reminiscent of and a terrific homage to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990).
Minor complaints aside, American Hustle is wildly entertaining and a dazzling filmmaking triumph. It is that rare occasion when style meets substance and produces a spark of madness that is irresistible. Watch it for the actors, watch it for the dialogues, watch it for the music and most importantly, watch it for the movies!