This is one of the overriding themes of David O. Russell’s heavily anticipated and aggressively marketed, star-studded American Hustle.
Ironically, this statement now applies to Russell himself. He must have walked out of the editing room and told himself he was satisfied with the end result.
He shouldn’t have been.
His film needed an outside editor to come in and give it one more judicious whack with a meat cleaver.
Such is the dilemma for film directors who reach levels of universal critical acclaim where they no longer receive objective opinions from their minions. See Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola for evidence of emperors who have no clothes.
American Hustle tells the semi-true story of a bizarre 1978 scam involving a pair of low rent con artists, an FBI agent, a New Jersey Mayor, a handful of corrupt Congressmen, and some casino scrounging mob goons.
“Everybody at the bottom eventually crosses paths,” says con gal Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) in an early piece of narration. Her narration intertwines with con man Irving Rosenfeld’s (Christian Bale) and low-level fed Richie DiMaso’s (Bradley Cooper). Never a good idea to have more than one narrator.
Russell’s script is redundant and choppy, his tendency to let his actors improvise their way in and out of scenes doesn’t work in this film the way it did in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. The scenes play out too long, the dialogue becomes grating at times, tedious at others, and the actors seem as if they were left alone to navigate their way through the weeds.
So, let’s look at the performances:
Bale is appropriately pathetic and desperate, but his charm is not all that apparent therefore leaving us asking how he was able to separate so many people from their money. Cooper delivers another hyper focused, semi-maniacal loose cannon (similar to his neurotic SLP character) who is determined to bag some big game regardless of any collateral damage. Jennifer Lawrence, whose lack of screen time will surprise people, is erratic and wacky, but her “heart of gold” schtick runs out of sizzle and leaves us wishing she would go away. Jeremy Renner delivers easily the most sympathetic performance as the well-intended Jersey Mayor who loves his constituents almost as much as he loves his job. But he’s not really all that believable as a glad-handing politician.
The film establishes in the setup that she is a woman obsessed with climbing the ladder of success, adapting and adjusting to any and all circumstances to reach her goals. She has a “vision.” It’s what she also sees in Bale’s Rosenfeld that gives this film its most endearing merit. Their love story almost works.
Nonetheless, Adams is excellent, as usual. She is easily one of the most versatile actors working today, and man does she strut her stuff in American Hustle. It’s not easy to out-dazzle Jennifer Lawrence – but she does. Super sexy, super smart, and plenty tough.
Expectations are everything in how we perceive films.
When you go in with low ones, you can be pretty easily impressed with mediocre product.
Going in with high expectations is always a trap. In this case, how could we not? David O. Russell’s prior work has led us to expect greatness. Here he morphed the two casts of his last two celebrated films, and added the reliable Renner for good measure. This one should soar.
It sputters. It shouts too much and says too little.
Must say, though, that the wall-to-wall 1970s pop songs were consistently music to my ears. Russell and I seem to have very similar taste in music. I smiled big when The Bee Gees “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” filled the theatre, and the accompanying montage was one of the strongest in the film. At other times, however, it seemed as if the songs were inserted strategically to salvage uneven pacing and sloppy writing.
Not even sure I will see this film again once it comes out on DVD.