“Jeep’s Blues” is a roaring, big band jazz piece composed by Duke Ellington specifically for alto sax player, Johnny Hodges. It’s a fantastic piece of ‘30s jazz music that is sultry, sexy, passionate, and featured prominently in American Hustle: a film which shares none of these qualities.
New York-born director and writer David O. Russell got his start as an auteur comedy director with the dark comedy Spanking the Monkey, and the hilarious, Flirting with Disaster, which firmly established himself as a young, bold director who knew how to handle all-star casts. Since then, he has enjoyed humongous success and has starred the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro multiple times throughout his directing career.
Sadly, O. Russell’s original flare has started to fizzle since he finished The Fighter in 2010. Some may have dismissed The Fighter for a run-of-the-mill, boxing champ from the slums film, but it was still excellently directed with some Oscar-worthy performances. Silver Linings Playbook on the other hand, is one of those films that relies on you not having seen very many movies in order to enjoy it.
Depending on how many indie romantic comedies you’ve seen (Garden State being a good example), you’ll probably find the “crazy guy dating the very weird but conventionally attractive woman and then learns to cope with life because of her” storyline to be very old at this point. With American Hustle coming out only a year after Silver Linings Playbook, it’s looking like O. Russell might have rushed this one a bit too quickly.
Right from the beginning, as the film opens with the text “some of this actually happened,” you know that it’s not taking itself seriously. Based on a late 1970s FBI sting operation called Abscam, American Hustle follows the efforts of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) as he cons his way into riches, and then some, with the addition of his fake British accomplice, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).
Irving, as he tells us in the beginning, has a lot on his plate. He runs a glass business which repairs windows that he gets other people to break (something he did for his dad as a kid), he sells legitimate-looking fake pieces of famous art, and he runs a chain of dry cleaners. In addition to those endeavors, he also swindles money from people who can’t get loans by taking a $5000 down payment and then never giving the person their money.
This particular outlet becomes highly successful after he convinces Sydney Prosser to join him. Sydney demonstrates to Irving how she will sucker in these people by using an English accent (which in reality should only fool people who have never met a British person before) and introducing herself as Lady Edith Greensly: a person who has “royal banking connections in London.”
After accidently attempting to con undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), Irving and Sydney are forced to work with the FBI to help expose corrupt politicians and find high-ranking mafia members. Irving is deeply frustrated by this, which is only made worse by his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who keeps trying to involve herself in his life despite how much he hates being around her. The only reason why Irving hasn’t divorced her yet is because of his attachment to Rosalyn’s son, Danny. Regardless of Irving’s attitude towards his wife, she quickly becomes involved in the cons through the social events Irving is made to attend by the FBI.
With so many people involved, characters get played on several levels of half-truths throughout the film, and many people form relationships on the side to get what they want. Some of these are more carefully disguised than others, like the miraculous display of hair preparation in the opening scene as Irving takes his very unflattering, balding hair and corrects it through a process that is part toupée, part elaborate combover. The film itself is much like that toupée: a disguise for something it’s not. If you peel the toupée off, like Richie does moments after Irving has completed it, you’ll see the film for the mediocre rip-off it is.
The big problem with American Hustle is that it becomes clear very quickly that David O. Russell is trying to make his own version of Goodfellas. The scenes are interspersed with montages which are narrated by different members of the cast (usually Irving, sometimes Sydney); the film begins with a short scene starting in the middle and then goes back to the beginning with Irving explaining why he got into the business; and to top it all off, a notable actor from Goodfellas does show up playing a gangster, proving that his present career is pretty much a parody of any good role he’s ever had.
Any promise of the film redeeming itself with a good screenplay is thrown to the wind when the characters begin talking. Not only is the dialogue completely insufferable, but the film can’t decide what tone it is trying to set. It’s clear that it isn’t taking itself seriously with cheesy lines like “what’s it gonna be, Mr. Mastermind,” but it feels like it can’t decide between being serious or completely camp. There are times when Amy Adams will try to utter her dialogue like she’s a female Humphrey Bogart by calling people “kid,” but it just comes across feeling cheap and out of place.
The cinematography doesn’t do the film any favours either. The camera moves around a lot in an attempt to give film life, but it always seems to be a few paces behind of where it should be. In fact, the camera control and editing were so awful that I found myself laughing awkwardly on more than one occasion.
If you can look at the acting separately from the script, then it becomes the only redeeming quality of the film. Everyone is ridiculously over-the-top and it helps the film feel at least somewhat engaging. Despite being in the most embarrassing scene in the whole film (which includes the worst use of the song “Live and Let Die” ever), Jennifer Lawrence’s charisma comes off strong and certainly delivers the best performance out of all of them.
When describing this film, O. Russell said it best when he said “I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it,” and suddenly everything makes more sense. This film is an experiment where O. Russell gets to take his favourite actors, give them roles that belong in different films, and throw them all together. Is the experiment interesting? Sure. Does it make it a good film? No. Should you see this movie? Absolutely not. Save your time and money; go watch Goodfellas instead.