Directed by: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis CK, Robert DeNiro, Jack Huston, Michael Pena
At a party in late seventies New York, small time hustler Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) meets the sexy Sydney Prosser (Adams), an ambitious young woman new to the city. The two immediately fall for each other and partner up to run a con trick from the offices of their fake company, "London Associates". When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) busts their operation, Rosenfeld and Prosser (who DiMaso mistakenly believes is a member of the English gentry) agree to work for him in order to avoid prison. Their brief is to expose corrupt politicians through a scam involving a fake Arab Sheik interested in investing money in Atlantic City.
The working title for David O Russell's latest was "American Bullshit". It's a far more appropriate title as from the opening seconds of his film we begin to smell BS. "Some of this actually happened," the opening credit disclaims. This allows Russell to deviate from the truth of the real life "ABSCAM" FBI operation. And, boy, does he. It's difficult to believe any of what you're seeing could have actually happened, probably because it didn't. The real con is played by Russell on his audience, who are fooled into expecting a Goodfellas style period crime drama when what they actually get is a comedy caper that lies somewhere between Anchorman and The Sting.
Russell has gradually been developing his own sub genre, the "caricature drama", and American Hustle takes this to the max. None of the characters feel remotely real and the performances are as over the top as the seventies fashion sported by the characters. But this is the film's greatest strength. While the plot is too paper thin and unbelievable to get invested in, it's the larger than life performances that keep you interested. Everyone seems ridiculously miscast (Jews and Italians are played by Anglo-Saxons, Lawrence seems far too young for her housewife role and Louis CK is embarrassingly amateurish as Cooper's FBI boss, though he's easily the funniest character in the film) but somehow it works. The effect is like seeing your mates stumble their way through a charity Christmas panto.
After years of watching Bale play a series of particularly dour characters, it's great to see him enjoy himself and show off the comic chops he so brilliantly displayed in American Psycho, still his signature role. It's Lawrence who steals the film, however, as Bale's nutjob wife. Physically, she seems all wrong for the part, but like a drunken tuneless girl with a Karaoke mike, she gives it her all and delivers her own brand of entertainment.
Much of the performances are improvised, which makes the irritatingly pointless voiceover all the more baffling. It seems Russell allowed his stars room to roam but doesn't have enough confidence in their abilities. I can't recall a voiceover so blunt and unnecessary as the one we're subjected to here. Characters practically explain what Russell's camera and his actor's faces are telling us on screen. "He took me to his dry cleaners," Adams tells us, as we watch Bale, you guessed it, take her to a dry cleaners. She tells us she's attracted to Bale when they first meet but the lustful expression on her face tells us this explicitly. Perhaps this is Russell's concession to the texters in the audience but for those of us who prefer to keep our eyes on the screen it's extremely distracting.
If you're expecting any kind of nuanced crime drama, American Hustle's rambling plot (as bloated as Bale's impressive beer belly) and cartoon characters will likely grate but if you're willing to allow yourself to get wrapped up in the infectiousness of how much fun everyone involved seems to be having, this is a highly enjoyable piece of Hollywood pantomime.