It may speak to the year or the film itself, but David O. Russell’s American Hustle exploded on the scene, arriving to quickly become an Oscar front runner, and netting ten nominations in the process (while also grossing nearly $150 Million at the box office). But by the time of the awards ceremony, Hustle went home empty handed, even though stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence we all nominated. The film turned out to be all sizzle and no steak. Which is actually the story of the movie as two hustlers are put on the spot by the FBI to help catch bigger swindlers.
Hit the jump for my American Hustle Blu-ray review.
The movie opens mid-crime as Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), Sydney Prosser (Adams) and Richie DiMaso (Cooper) are trying to give Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) a briefcase full of money. Actually it starts with Irving getting his hair ready at the hotel, but as he wasn’t staying at the hotel, it’s sort of weird that he would be doing it there, and in retrospect makes no sense. This is the movie in a nutshell: Impressive in the moment, but nonsensical in total. The film then flashes back to show how Irving and Sydney got into this position. The duo met at a pool party, and though Irving is overweight and has a ridiculous hairstyle, she’s immediately attracted to this hustler, who’s built a life owning window repair and dry cleaning stores and now makes money selling forged art and scamming desperate people looking for loans. Irving brings Sydney in on a loan scam and the two fall madly in love, but there’s just one hitch: he’s married to Rosalyn (Lawrence), who he won’t leave because he adopted her kid. Their loan operation is going swimmingly until Richie busts them, and then convinces them to set up four other people. They don’t like it, but agree.
Sydney says to do this they need an exit plan so they aren’t on the string for more when they’ve delivered what they said they would, so she says she’ll prey on Richie’s libido, as he’s an up and comer and horny as all get out. Richie’s boss Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.) sees that Richie is a cowboy, but he’s seemingly getting results. Irving has a scam that involves a Sheik, and that’s how they rope in Carmine, but that’s not enough for Richie who wants to keep going higher up the criminal food chain, which gets them to Senators and crime lords. But Rosalyn is insane, so she gets in the middle of their scams, and makes things worse when she starts dating a mob guy (Jack Huston), who Irving is currently scamming.
Based loosely on the ABSCAM scandal, the movie is about a collection of scenes that have high points but don’t really add up. At a certain point Irving and Sydney’s connect to the Sheik is so removed that it doesn’t make sense why they’re kept around (the only reason seems to be that Richie doesn’t know how to handle these people). The film sets up that Sydney and Irving have a master plan, but that never gets paid off, and when Sydney starts getting Richie interested, it feels like a con, but then it becomes real… or something. These plots threads dissipate as they’re not really the focus of the movie. But then nothing is. It’s a film where Adams says that their biggest hurdle is going to be Lawrence, who could screw everything up, and then in the next scene, Lawrence screws everything up. Everything is about getting to the next big moment or sequence.
Renner’s character is mostly sympathetic, and the film doesn’t know how to feel good about that in the end, nor does it really gel as his character is obvious corrupt in some ways, but the film then paints him as “good corrupt.” There seems to something to what Bale says when he shows Cooper’s character a forger painting, and wonders who is the more successful artist, the real artist or the faker. This is fake art done as a hustle. Director Russell spends the film like his shot list has WWMSD (“What Would Martin Scorsese Do”) written in every corner, which also means there’s Scorsesian tracking shots, and cuts throughout. This film is like the bad version of Boogie Nights. That approach of thoughtless aping is also apparent in the music cues (which are too on the nose), and having the actors do things that are unexpected, yet totally unbelievable, nor motivated. Why is Amy Adams screaming in the bathroom? Why would Lawrence kiss Adams? Etc. etc.
If the film works it’s because of the performers. Adams and Bale are doing great work — though Bale seems to have modeled his performance after a number of Robert De Niro roles — but both bring heart and interest to the story. Renner is also good, though his hair seems to do much of the acting for him. That said, both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence seem wildly miscast and/or have such poorly written roles they can’t do much with it. Lawrence is especially egregiously off. There’s a scene where she has to sing along to “Live and Let Die” and it’s an embarrassment. She’s cute while it happens, but it just lays there like an unformed idea, while her dancing is cute/terrible. Cooper never convinces in any detail of his character, that said his impression of Louis C.K. is one of the funniest moments in the film and of the year.
The film has the air of a Max Fischer play, in that everything seems to have been learned from pop culture but not reality, and it feels like watching kids play dress up. Whatever Russell is after is unapparent unless it is just him chasing Oscar gold. Fortunately he was denied it, because this movie is all surface. Perhaps the film’s success is the film’s most elaborate con.
Sony’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. And though it was shot digitally, and some sequences seem to have been blown up and have the additional artifacting, the film is ported straight from the theatrical master, so it looks as good as it can. There are eleven deleted scenes (22 min.) including a version of the “Live and Let Die” scene with the song “Evil Ways.” There’s also a light making of included (17 min.), which sings the praises of the director, but doesn’t get too deep into the movie.