From its opening shot, American Hustle is about the art of the con, the small cons we pull on each other and, more importantly, ourselves. The con can be in the image we project to the world to the point where we can no longer distinguish who we truly are from the lie we’ve created. David O. Russell‘s new film features characters who lie to the world in order to lie to themselves, but the filmmaker never manages to organize the lies and the liars into something bigger and more poignant. They’re random molecules bouncing off each other in a way that’s fun, flighty, and occasionally a little melancholy. Russell seems bent on trying to meld his offbeat earlier films with his recent, more populist fare, but the result is a piece that’s often amusing, but rarely audacious.
Set during the 1970s, the story follows the unlikely relationship between con-artists and lovers Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Rosenfeld and Prosser are happy running a racket on marks, but are caught dead-to-rights by DiMaso. Their only chance at freedom is working with DiMaso to bring down Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), whose corruption extends as far as wanting to build casinos in order to save the city he genuinely loves. But everyone’s lies and ambitions as well as Irving’s loose canon wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to derail the entire operation with disastrous and possibly fatal consequences.
Russell quickly establishes a playful con before the movie even really begins. The studio banner for Columbia Pictures is era-specific, and in the case of new studio Annapurna Pictures, they created a 70s-style logo. Everyone is playing dress-up, and Russell builds a nice tone at the outset as we see Irving meticulously craft a combover-toupee combo. We then move to Sydney and her fake British accent as she plays her seductive “Edith” persona, and then over to DiMaso, who wears a head of finely-crafted curls. The 1970s were a time of outlandish fashion, and Russell lets the hair and make-up do a lot of the heavy lifting.
The movie is at its best when its upbeat persona manages to line the characters up with a deeper theme. Sydney best exemplifies this merger as Adams slips in and out of a bad English accent. Since “people believe what they want to believe”, no one calls her on the accent, and she only slips out of it when she wants to remind Irving of her power. She’s sexy and seductive, and once you’ve bought into the glamour, as DiMaso does, rational thought goes out the window. Sydney has the power to make men want her, but she’s the one who needs the mask. As she says in her voiceover, she always wanted to be anybody else.
Adams strong performance is matched by Cooper and Lawrence. Bale sounds like he’s doing a De Niro impression, but his co-stars find better routes to their performances. Lawrence is a firecracker, and while she doesn’t get enough screen time to add some shading to Rosalyn, the Oscar-winning actress still brings a delightful, reckless abandon to the character, who becomes a welcome relief as a brooding and depressive tone begins to creep into the picture. As for Cooper, he whips up a nice mix of vulnerability, anxiety, desperation, to his role, and his scenes with Louis C.K., who plays DiMaso’s exasperated boss, are among the year’s best.
And yet for all of its strong performances and skillful coloring, it never comes together into anything meaningful. Russell is spinning a lot of plates—Irving’s relationship with Sydney; Irving’s relationship with Rosalyn; Sydney’s relationship with DiMaso; the actual con job—and they rarely illustrate anything thoughtful or worthwhile. It’s nice seeing these actors play off each other against a peppy backdrop, but to what point and purpose? The notion of self-deluded con artists is far from new, and Russell makes a big mistake by trying to echo Goodfellas. He may have the talented actors and the excellent soundtrack, but American Hustle lacks the control and artistry of the 1990 classic. Goodfellas is Scorsese at the top of his game; American Hustle is Russell trying to find his game.
The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook gave Russell an easy path to good comedy, passable family drama, and a clear structure to a climatic resolution. American Hustle brings him off terra firma, but he can’t seem to recapture the aggressive, uncompromising style of his first four features. The director that joked about firing gunshots into a real corpse on Three Kings and was fine with “An Existential Comedy” as the tagline on the poster for I Heart Huckabees has been repressed in favor or someone who can throw a good party but makes sure it never gets out of hand. American Hustle doesn’t feel like a work of restraint as much as it feels like timidity masquerading as braggadocio.
I really wanted American Hustle to hook me, and the film is constantly alluring. There are good ideas stewing about, the performances are captivating, and this is definitely the time for movies about The American Dream™. Unfortunately, it’s as phony as combovers, British accents, perms, and polyester suits. Thankfully, Russell’s picture never comes off as self-important; it’s simply misguided. American Hustle is so busy relishing lies that it never builds to finding an insightful truth.