American Hustle (2013)

Directed by David O. Russell
Written by Eric Singer & David O. Russell

The progression of director David O. Russell is a bit all over the map for me. I saw him first as a witty action director with 1999’s Three Kings, then again at the helm of the off kilter comedy I Heart Huckabees, the gritty boxing pic The Fighter, and finally his magnum opus, a romantic comedy that hearkens back to the age of Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant in Silver Linings Playbook. Now in 2013, Russell gives us the over the top con movie with American Hustle. He is a bit of a chameleon on a rollar coaster, covering many genres, some often better than others. But one things runs constant through his work, spectacular performances.

American Hustle is based on a true story, believe it or not. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con man who, along with his partner Sydney (Amy Adams), gets caught by FBI agent DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). But instead of incarceration, they agree to help DiMaso catch New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) bribing US Congressmen using what has now been dubbed ABSCAM, a ploy to pose as an Arab shiek willing to invest in the development of Atlantic City. Set in the 1970s, Russell pulls out any stops of subtlety and goes over the top in every way possible.

To start with the good, nay the great, the performances. From an ensemble as great as this, I may expect nothing less, but everyone delivers in this wacky format. Christian Bale, who also seems to be polarizing, is so outlandish that he may gain some flak, but I felt it was the perfect pitch with which to deliver this character. And surrounded by him are the always solid Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper, neither of which steals the show, but give us entertaining turns. Who does steal the show, and it should come as no surprise at this point, is Jennifer Lawrence, who matches Bale’s wackiness step for step (re: Science Oven). If for no other reason, the film could be recommended for its performances alone.

The sad part is, that may be the only reason I could recommend the film. Russell has had his highs and lows before, but I just feel like the film is a bit lifeless narratively. As a con movie, it fails to ever be truly exciting or interesting from a con perspective. The twist reveal at the end is nice, but by then I was bored with the setup that I could care less for what the twist was. I was much more focused on the characters than I was what they were specifically doing in the confines of the story. It is billed as a “fictionalization” of these ludicrous real events, so I get that it is supposed to be over the top (and I was glad it was), but I don’t get why it had to otherwise be a bit dull.

Sometimes there are films that are heralded more for their actors than their technical aspects or achievements in storytelling. I must say this is probably one of those films. Russell’s style toes the delicate line between too far gone and over the top and just ridiculous enough for the story being told. I imagine that is how I ended up on this side of a film that has garnered quite a bit of praise, but I stand steadfast, and am of the opinion that it is an above average film due to its remarkable ensemble cast, and an above average film in spite of its rather vapid and insignificant story, and the in your face style in which it is delivered by director David O. Russell.

*** – Good


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