If you’re going to open your film with a text as cheeky as "Some of this actually happened", you better back that up with a story that’s as outlandish and "stranger than fiction" as you claim.
After Costa-Gavras’ masterpiece about political corruption opened with the text "This is all based on real people and we don’t care who we offend", it was followed by a shocking turn of events that displayed gross abuse of power and influence.
Based loosely on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s where a bunch of congressmen were busted on camera taking bribes, American Hustle settles on a fairly standard con movie surrounded by admittedly fascinating characters.
However, unlike director David O. Russell’s previous effort, the surprisingly effective Silver Linings Playbook, which subverted the expectations of the tired rom-com genre with exceptionally well-rounded characters, American Hustle wrestles with a genre that requires a perfectly structured plot along with impressive character work.
Based on interviews he’s given in the past, apparently Russell’s style is to focus entirely on building interesting characters and invent the plot as he goes along. This is a tricky gamble to say the least, especially if the goal is to present entertainment that purports to be subversive but stays within the lines of big-budget mainstream studio fare.
This gamble has paid off with Three Kings and Silver Linings, where an intriguing story was somehow excreted through the improvised character work, and I Heart Huckabees and American Hustle, where it didn’t. It’s especially tough to create a genre as plot-centric as the con movie through this approach.
The film begins with a long take of con man Irving (Christian Bale in yet another physically transformative role that reminds us we’re probably not that far away from a real version of the blackface character from Tropic Thunder) carefully adjusting his laughably obvious comb-over in order to present a full head of hair to the targets of his con. This visual message immediately informs us that we’re in for a tongue-in-cheek dramedy where nothing is as it seems.
Irving and his lover/business partner Sydney (A bra-less Amy Adams, thank God for the 70s) are busted by overly ambitious FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper with a fantastic fro), who forces Irving and Sydney to use their conmen skills to bag a bunch of corrupt congressmen.
Their brilliant plan involves pretending to be the American assistants of a fake wealthy Arab sheik in order to attract their bait but when the mob gets involved and Irving actually starts feeling sorry for one of their targets, the earnest New Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner, things start falling apart.
As story structure goes, American Hustle follows a fairly standard plot reminiscent of the great The Sting, where all con movie structures comes from. But by the time the big obligatory "con men conning other con men" twist comes along, it’s more of a predictable whimper than a bang of an ending. It’s obvious that Russell focused a lot more on the characters and the interactions between them, which creates some truly fascinating dynamics in fairly entertaining scenes. The pieces of the puzzle are all there, but they don’t fit into a whole picture when attempted to be put together.
Consider the scenes of endless bickering between Sydney and his boss Stoddard (A perfectly cast Louis CK, who infuses the character with his stand-up persona of the cranky middle aged man full of ennui), where Sydney aggressively tries to secure more funding for the sting operation from the fiscally conservative Midwestern party pooper Stoddard. The scenes pop with perfect comedic timing between Cooper and CK.
Same goes for the insane sexual chemistry between Cooper and Adams, who vow to not have sex until the operation is a success, which procures some of the most painful cases of blue balls in cinema history for Cooper’s character. But as a whole, we’re presented with well-executed and sometimes fascinating short films that don’t fit together thematically. Also some of the flimsy sub-plots that start from nowhere and goes nowhere as a result really muddy the waters, such as an underwhelming story about a relationship between Irving’s borderline agoraphobic wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a member of the mob (Jack Huston, whose full face we’re finally allowed to see after four seasons of Boardwalk Empire).
David O. Russell apparently worked on rewriting Eric Singer’s screenplay while in production on Silver Linings Playbook and had trouble juggling both jobs. Barely a year after Silver Lining’s release, we get his next film combining his cast from The Fighter with those from Silver Linings. A year doesn’t feel like a long enough time to finish such an elaborate and complex project. Perhaps taking some more time to rewrite the script and polish the material might have helped. As it is, the execution feels too choppy and rushed.
American Hustle is definitely a step down from the excellent Silver Linings Playbook but this disappointment is surely a result of high expectations from this director and cast. It is nevertheless entertaining and full of energy, just don’t expect anything new in terms of original storytelling.