Erratic "American Hustle" Plays By Its Own Rules

Any film that begins with a portly Christian Bale gluing hair to his scalp is all right in my book, but it’s a moment so indelible that what comes next has no chance of keeping up. The mercurial David O. Russell has wasted no time in following up his wildly successful “Silver Linings Playbook,” but more time in the soon-to-be proverbial “science oven” would have greatly benefitted “American Hustle.” It’s a picture full of agreeable performances and a few “aha” moments that most filmmakers would kill for, but it never comes together in any meaningful way.

Not that the film intends to come together – its aim is as off-kilter as its protagonists – but its whole doesn’t match the sum of its parts, leaving it squarely in the near-miss column. Its zany, devil-may-care spirit ultimately carries the day, but it rebuffs, at every turn, the kind of moviegoer seeking to get lost in it. Enjoyment? Absolutely. Absorption? Look elsewhere. Every frame of the 70s-set “American Hustle” is heightened to the max, intent on romanticizing its own affectations.

Christian Bale stars as Irving Rosenfeld, a lifelong con man who looks like a cross between songwriter Paul Williams and Tom Cruise’s character in “Tropic Thunder.” The film begins at the story’s midpoint before quickly backtracking to Rosenfeld’s past. Irving finds a kindred spirit in a woman named Sydney Prosser and the two quickly become partners in both love and crime. That’s not to mention Rosenfeld’s neurotic wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who holds the otherwise composed criminal in the palm of her hand.

Soon, Irving and Sydney (in character as the British ‘Lady Edith’) find themselves in the midst of an FBI investigation and they’re coerced by a convivial if equally disturbed agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), to aid in the sting operation known as ABSCAM. That the film is loosely based on actual events never pays off beyond a title card that reads “some of this actually happened.” The bulk of the film is so broadly comedic that any dramatic weight inherent in the true story slides off the screen, as if being burned away by the charisma of the cast.

Their heat is considerable though, particularly that of Bale’s surprisingly deft comic timing. He and Adams’ multi-layered femme fatale smolder when they’re on screen together, the latter giving one of her best performances to date – in a career full of good ones. Cooper’s comedic abilities are nearly as sharp, although less surprising, and his fast-talking, borderline manic disposition is perfectly suited to square off against the wonderful Louis C.K. The beloved stand-up comedian plays DiMaso’s jaded boss and they combine to turn a boilerplate boss-employee conflict subplot into something substantial.

Jeremy Renner turns in a fine supporting performance as Carmine Polito, the pompadoured Mayor of Camden, New Jersey – one of the handful of targets of the FBI’s operation – while the perpetually underused Michael Pena amuses in a mostly wordless role as an agent standing in for a wealthy Arab Sheikh. Then there’s an extended cameo – one that I won’t spoil – from an iconic American actor that feels like an afterthought. It’s a bit part that means little in the scope of the narrative, so casting such a recognizable actor in the part only enhances the unwavering feeling that we’re watching movie stars play dress-up.

The aforementioned cameo is synecdoche for the film’s failure to create even the mirage of immersion. The project is seemingly engineered to remind us that we’re watching a movie, perpetually so. The feeling that would typically be referred to as being taken out of a movie would be a misnomer here. We’re never involved enough to be pulled out, therefore the screenplay – by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell – can only succeed on a limited basis. Even the best writers struggle in making their characters relatable. With caricatures, it’s nearly impossible.

The script is so arrhythmic that it nearly saunters. The final cut – ostensibly one of many – is absolutely anarchic in its assembly, haphazardly alternating between storylines for kicks and returning to important characters after long absences without explanation. Lawrence’s character is missing from most of the film’s first hour, belying the conceit that Rosalyn could be – in the words of the film’s own plot synopsis – “the one to pull the thread that brings the entire world crashing down.”

The pic’s era-specific trappings are a blessing and a curse. The attention paid to detail is astounding, the crew evidently spending as much time on the wardrobe of the extras as that of the leads. More impressive still is the extensive on-location shooting, every street corner, every restaurant faithfully enveloped in period appropriate decoration. Yet, Russell’s use of late 70s pop music is so pervasive and on the nose that the screenplay occasionally seems to be constructed around particular songs rather than the other way around. Jennifer Lawrence pointlessly singing along to Bond classic “Live And Let Die” is a lowlight.

But “American Hustle” is often fun enough to justify its excess of swagger, and bits and pieces of it are nothing short of radiant. Removed from the context of an overstuffed but undercooked narrative, a few of its scenes are reminiscent of “Goodfellas.” But “Goodfellas” – as cocky and unrestrained as it was – told a coherent story. “American Hustle” is simply too content with itself to transcend the genre and too stubborn to conform to tried and true storytelling mores, leaving it as little more than a “Goodfellas” wannabe.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 13, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriter: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Pena
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence)