From its inception a lot was expected of American Hustle, or "American Bullshit" as it was once called, director David O. Russell’s follow up to his Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook that put an actor in every major category and was even able to take one of those home. The key element of Russell’s films since re-certifying himself as a force to be reckoned with was the frenetic energy with which they carried themselves and while his latest is no different this time around it feels like there was nowhere specific to focus this energy and so it gets sprawled across a multitude of characters and a convoluted plot that concerns itself with con artists, IRS agents, mobsters and politicians. It seems unfair that with the good will Russell garnered not only with Silver Linings, but also with The Fighter that he immediately be expected to deliver more great cinema simply because he is working in the same time period and has recruited the same group of actors from each film to make up a stellar cast because it almost seems it would be impossible to deliver. The problem is, expectations were set so high that critics and cinephiles automatically assumed it was going to be quality movie-going and so they have seemingly lapped up this picture to be what they wanted it to be rather than taking it for what it actually is: a solid piece of Scorsese tribute with a cast that transcends the messy script. It is hard to say whether this would have come off as a better film without the expectation or if the expectation indeed helps it appear more impressive considering that is what we expected. Either way, I was never particularly excited about the film as I wasn’t familiar with the events that inspired it, but more I was excited to see what Russell would do with his impressive cast and his old school setting. I really enjoyed Silver Linings and I absolutely adored The Fighter for being able to take a stock story and make it more than that, with performances that never failed and lifted the material above the standard and maybe I, too, was hoping for that to happen here. I simply found it hard to really dig into the film as it never pulled me in and kept me there the way those last two efforts have. And that may be a problem as well, both that we expected American Hustle to be of the same quality and to do many of the same things to our senses that those two films elicited, but this is a different film altogether and to take it on those terms alone would be to realize by no means is this a bad film, it also isn’t one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Dolly (Elisabeth Rohm), Irving (Christian Bale) and Mayor Carmine (Jeremy Renner)
enjoy a nice dinner together in David O. Russell's American Hustle.
Some of this actually happened. That statement opens up the film and from there we are introduced to both Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) two people just looking to get ahead in the world. Irving is a con man, a guy who saw his father get taken in life and made the type of promises to himself that would never allow the same thing to happen to him. While he takes over his father’s glass business he also opens a few laundry mats and on the side begins making a few extra bucks by conning the desperate out of their money and conning art dealers into by forged copies of famous paintings. Sydney comes from the barren land of New Mexico and desires nothing more than to make something out of herself and have a life where she wears extravagant clothes and is exposed to the luxurious lifestyle she always desired. The two of them make a wonderful team, they both know it, the only problem is Irving is married with a child and Irving loves the boy but his crazy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), won’t grant him a divorce because she won’t be the first woman in her family to not have a successful marriage. Still, Irving and Sydney know how much they love one another and continue to see each other without any real guilt because they believe in the actualities of the situation rather than what convention dictates. In fact, they are so enticed with one another that their roll gets the better of them when Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) traps them in the act of providing him a loan for an up-front, non-refundable fee of course. Cooper’s DiMaso is a young and energetic federal agent who is keen on trapping the bad guys, but his big head (and permed hair) begin to get the better of him too when rather than simply putting Irving and Sydney away he enlists their help and their expertise to con bigger fish that might prove better for headlines and for his career. Enter Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the genuinely loved mayor of New Jersey who has the city’s best interests at heart and will do whatever it takes to get the economy back up and moving in 1978. With an extravagant plan to entrap the mayor into taking a loan from a random sheik that wants to invest in the promising gambling business of Atlantic City they are able to both pin Polito in the middle of all the action while accidentally stepping into much bigger waters when serious mob players get involved.

Like I said in the opening paragraph it is the performances that transcend the material here though as each of the four main characters are driven with performances that clearly understand the people they are playing while Lawrence gets a few scenes sprinkled throughout that really play up just how good of an actress the girl really is. It is easy to forget how young Lawrence is because she is able to play such a wide state of mind so effortlessly, but while appearing the young, dense wife of Irving she also is able to portray a jaded sense of life gone by. She is off her rocker, that is clear and she doesn’t have the slightest clue of what is actually going on around her, but to a certain extent we find her endearing not because of her attitude which would probably push anyone to a divorce, but because of the lost lamb vibes with which her character operates in this world of con artists and self-serving personalities. She has been married to Bale’s Irving for quite some time and while Bale’s character is probably the most despicable person out of the core group represented here he also comes to be the most sane one under the circumstances. Despite his “elaborate comb over” which is made a point of much reference in the film and his belly that protrudes over his belt line, Irving is confident in himself to a fault and he has every reason to be. This isn’t the greatest Bale has ever been (I prefer his performance in Out of the Furnace earlier this month to be honest), but Bale is never not good and he continues to prove that here not only with his physical commitment, but in his understanding of what drives Irving and the ability to allow the audience to not only see the real Irving, the person he is struggling with internally, but who he is to those around him and we see each of those layers. In the midst of the conflict between Bale and Lawrence Adams provides the final nail in the coffin and her performance, though she’s served as part of plenty of good to great films, was probably the most surprising for me. As Sydney she plays a woman who splits up her personalities to get the better of the folks her and Irving con, to make them seem more prestigious, more legit but it also seems she begins to get lost in herself somehow wanting this alter ego to be who she actually is as she is able to play up that fantasy with Cooper’s DiMaso. Still, Adams is able to allow her character the ability to handle her ambition and skill with a fair balance for a considerable amount of the running time. It is Cooper who stole the show for me though and despite the fact Renner’s character is downplayed and that it is his Mayor and subtle performance that relays the crux of what the reason for telling this story is, it is Cooper’s performance that will bowl you over and having you realize Silver Linings Playbook was no fluke.

Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) go out for a night on the town.
In terms of style, direction, and story this is where the film varies more so than it does in the performance area. Russell keeps his signature style in check with a loose camera that quickly moves around its sets and actors while clearly having a specific agenda in terms of shot selection at specific moments. If there is one thing to be said for Russell’s direction it is that the shot selection is impeccable and one hundred percent re-enforces what the actors are doing and aids in revealing the layers of their performances. Going back to a line near the end of the last paragraph though I mention a justification for even bringing this story to the screen and I know Russell asked himself that same question when first beginning work on it. If he’s going to devote time and energy (and a lot of energy given the timeline he had) than he would need to find the reason audiences might be interested in seeing these events brought back to life. For me, that was the theme of bullshit. As it was going to be a word included in the title it is safe to assume this is one of the main themes Russell plays with in the script he co-wrote with Eric Singer. There is a tragedy aspect to the story, for the people who were involved and sacrificed purely for the personal gain or prominence of someone else. It is something that happens often in films and everyday life, but the film is able to convey this strong sense of wrong-doing not only through Irving’s moral code, but through the consistent discussions concerning how the world is or is not black and white in its wrongs and rights. Yes, the justice system says someone has to pay, but if it isn’t so black and white does everyone involved serve the penance or do we leave it pinned on one person to take the fall, willing or unwilling, guilty or innocent? It is a poignant question when brought up at the conclusion of the film and paired with the events that we’ve just seen unfold is the most powerful thing about the film.

What I’m surprised by though is that I was able to indeed take that understanding away from the film for despite the superior performances the actual story being told is so full of twists and turns and random people floating in and out that it was also hard to really dig into the film. I loved Cooper’s performance here, he played up the eager and overly-ambitious DiMaso to a fault and is hilarious in doing so throughout, but we aren’t truly introduced to him for about twenty minutes and it is in those twenty minutes as the film profiles Irving and Sydney that it stalls and is never really able to find its footing of pacing until maybe that last half hour when plans are put into action and we can see the outcome on the horizon. There are one too many musical montages over characters conversations that don’t allow the external relations to breathe and come off more as shortcuts than stylistic choices. Other compensations seem apparent as the speed with which production and editing took place poke through. Yet despite these missteps that fail to really get the audience involved in the events taking place it is hard to say the filmmakers didn’t have the same attitude as their characters; they clearly were dreaming big, they built this impressive film from the outside looking in and they didn’t give up, but like DiMaso their ambition may have got the best of them and that eagerness to be seen as an exemplary force to be reckoned with has overshadowed thinking through the project which has ultimately resulted in something less than they imagined.

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