A con man, Irving Rosenfeld, along with his seductive British partner, Sydney Prosser, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso.
American Hustle has pretensions of being a sprawling period piece a la Boogie Nights. Ultimately though it lacks the depth to carry it off. Filled with brilliant performances, snappy comedy, and top of the range production values, there is a more entertaining, shorter heist movie hidden in here somewhere. Unfortunately, American Hustle is too scared to simply entertain and tries to shoe-in drama where it isn’t wanted or needed. The result is a messy and overlong film, which is sporadically brilliant.
The film opens, rather inexplicably, on a mid-narrative scene, with the films titular hustle in full flow. The result is rather jarring then when minutes later the film takes a huge step back to look into the origins of its protagonists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). This sequence is altogether too long. Though it effectively sets up the dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the film, it would have worked just as well if this section was left out.
This is the story of American Hustle. Everything is drawn out and stretched too thin. Especially in the dramatic department. This seems to be a result of David O. Russell’s overwhelming ambitions. The films loses its steam as it tries too hard to add a sense of import to proceedings. At two and a quarter hours long the film is way too long. There are enough quality scenes here to make up a romping and enjoyable 90 minute caper in the vain of Ocean’s Eleven, but Russell seems set on creating his magnum opus.
Maybe this can be put down to the presence of such a prestigious cast who deliver uniformly excellent performances. Released at this time of year, there is no doubt that the film is gunning for Oscar success. The Oscar’s are notorious for their dim view on comedies and other genres that the academy deems low-brow. So perhaps, to give its cast a shot at Oscar glory, there was a concerted attempt to add depth to the film.
It’s a shame because the film is absolutely brilliant when it is content with simply being a fun ride. After the films slow start American Hustle hits a good pace for a time. This is largely thanks to the introduction of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Rosalyn Rosenfeld. Lawrence shows a surprising aptitude for comedy and livens up things considerably. Her performance is only magnified by an equally surprising and humorous turn from Christian Bale, who carries a look of exasperation on his face throughout their encounters.
One of the films main strengths can be found in its ability to make likeable such a-moral characters. Again this comes down to some really strong performances, but also from effective and witty writing. Things that should be detestable become endearing. Take, for example F.B.I. Agent DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), whose violent temperament is deplorable but effectively turned into a source of humour, thereby preventing us from hating him as we should.
As well-performed and well-written as these characters are, they are not particularly complex. Apart from the central pairing, they are generally defined by one characteristic. This is once again fine in a shorter caper, but when attempting to add depth the film struggles to find room in which to delve.
As American Hustle plods towards its conclusion it becomes clear that what the film is really lacking is a strong antagonist. It seems at first it is to be Jeremy Renner’s Mayor Polito, but it soon becomes clear that is not the case. Maybe it’s Irving unstable wife? Or the dogged DiMaso? It’s never made clear. Late on Robert De Niro makes an appearance and it seems as if he will be the ultimate mark. But after a short cameo, we never see him again. The result is that we are never given much of a reason to care what happens in the end, despite such a wealth of likeable characters.
It is hard to criticize a film for being ambitious and creative, but if American Hustle had stuck closer to more standardized heist movie plotting, it would no doubt have been a much more enjoyable experience. The irony is that in attempting to elevate itself above other heist movies American Hustle is no longer the classic of it’s sub-genre it might have been.