“Some of this actually happened” reads the titular card as the film opens, and while there is a kernel of truth to the story, there might as well not be: the characters and the setting are as over-the-top and unbelievable as any long-con. It is simultaneously the film’s merit and its problem.
Set in 1978, American Hustle follows the events surrounding the FBI’s real-life Abscam sting, which targeted corrupt officials. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Posser (Amy Adams) are running a short-con of tricking desperate people out of money by promising them to invest it with their London partners and making them ten times the money back. That is until they’re caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and forced to help him take down New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), Floridian mobster Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) and countless corrupt Congressmen who want to turn Atlantic City into a casino haven.
American Hustle takes a long time to get going, and during the initial setup of tricking the mayor severely struggles to hold attention. Despite an illustrious cast and an array of haircuts that are as impressive as the CGI in other films, Eric Singer and David O. Russell fail to create a plot that holds its own. This isn’t necessarily surprising, Russell has already shown his strength to be characters and not plot in Silver Linings Playbook, which even had much of the same cast and turned from two emotionally damaged people trying to become friends and saving each other from themselves to a bad love story in the last ten minutes.
Originally produced as American Bullshit, the film may just as well have been called American Dream. Russell yet again manages to present intriguing character studies. At its core it is a tale of reinvention and of climbing up the ladder, whether it’s Rosenfeld looking to find true love and get away from his depressed and manipulative wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Posser by calling herself Edith and taking on an English accent, or DiMaso by fighting his superior and mounting the Abscam sting to become a field officer. Rosenfeld constantly mentions the need to survive in his voice-over narration, and as the movie progresses it transpires that he means as much surviving within the world as surviving with his own self.
The film is silly, violent, steaming and fantastically ridiculous. As a pastiche of crime, political thriller, comedy and drama it defies genre definition. As such, it succeeds in encompassing everything great about contemporary American cinema by pretending to be American cinema of the late Seventies. It isn’t entertaining all the way through, much like the lives of its characters who struggle through and with the mundane, and in that regard the dragging moments actually work well. It isn’t entirely clear whether that is intentional or a happy coincidence.
It is ironic that the sanest character in the entire movie, DiMaso’s superior, is played, astonishingly well, by comedian Louis C.K., and it is disconcerting that the most honest character is a politician, mayor Polito, who takes the bribe but does it for the ‘right’ reasons. Everyone else is either mentally unstable, self-obsessed, has severe anger issues, is emotionally damaged or suffers from bipolar disorder – and most suffer from any combination of those.
The actual con is very formulaic with a final twist that is predictable and unsatisfying, but perhaps that, too, was intentional. The cast will certainly bring audiences to the cinemas, but despite Bale’s willingness to inflict radical diets on his body, it is doubtful whether there wasn’t someone who could have portrayed a Jew from the Bronx better. Cooper on the other hand dominates every scene he’s in. Amy Adams might be a great actress, but the dramatically unjustified and irritating decision to have her walk around essentially half-naked the entire film distracted too much from her performance. De Niro’s appearance is so short it goes uncredited, and yet it is, unsurprisingly, a powerful appearance. The true star of the film is Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the depressed wife and mother so well that one cannot help but wish she’d gotten more screen time.
At 138 minutes, American Hustle feels just a bit too long, but has enough intriguing bits and funny moments to keep your interest mostly sparked to get you all the way through. It’s certainly worth seeing for the hairdos and the careful attention to set detail alone: if nothing else it really puts you, combined with a carefully selected soundtrack, into the Seventies. In the end though, you can’t help but feel like you’ve just watched a perfectly average film, not bad, but not great either.