The time was 1978 and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a low level con man, along with his assistant Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are forced into an undercover sting operation after being caught by a rookie FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) looking to make a name for himself. The scam is to have Irving and Sydney sell New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) on a deal where he would rebuild Atlantic City using funds from a Middle-eastern source. But when the mafia gets involved in their deal and Irving's reckless wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawerence) forces herself into the deal, things quickly begin to spiral out of control leaving Irving and Sydney out to dry.
The key to any good con movie is for the con itself to remain a mystery until it is time for the big reveal. There are usually a handful of cons going on at one time, the con that we are supposed to know about which involves all the main characters and the central plot of the film, the con that is going on behind the scenes between the characters who are being forced into the main con and finally, there is the con that we aren't supposed to know about at all that comes in and blows us away when we discover who was in control the entire time.
Some classic films featuring a con or heist of some sort are The Usual Suspects, Primal Fear, Ocean's Eleven, Wall Street, The Color of Money and my personal favorite, A Fish Called Wanda. While there are a ton of examples of the genre, those films in particular each feature and ending that makes you rethink the entire set of events leading up to the reveal. As you recount those events, you begin to form the obligatory phrase, "Holy s**t". The reason for that reaction is that you didn't see it coming and most of the time because the characters seemed to be in a place where there was no way out clean, but somehow managed to do it and it made sense.
That is the singular ultimate failure of David O. Russell's American Hustle, the con just isn't all that interesting, at least not how it is depicted here. The con in the film is in fact based off a real sting operation by the FBI which was codenamed ABSCAM and most of the events and characters in the film are fairly accurate in their recreation of said events. But none of that changes the fact that when our characters get into an impossible situation, it is more than clear what they have to do to get out of it and when the reveal happens of how they actually did it, it isn't all that shocking and becomes somewhat of a let down.
This is not to say the reveal wasn't clever or well executed, it just didn't illicit that response those other similar (and superior) films did. It's hard to really nail down how this could have been rectified since the film as a whole is solid across the board, especially where the casting is concerned. This is a dream cast assembled by Russell, all of whom helped propel his previous films into the financially and critically successful productions that they eventually became.
Starting with his lead actors, Bale, Adams and Cooper are all fantastic here. Bale will likely get many accolades for his physical transformation, which is deserved, but by this time in his career, he is capable of adding or losing body weight on the fly. Not that it takes away from his dramatic physical changes, it just isn't nearly as impressive a feat as McConaughey's transformation for Dallas Buyers Club was. That being said, Bale's performance here isn't his best either. The actor has done much better work in the past (his award winning role in Russell's The Fighter was much more engaging). It's not that he is phoning it in, but more along the lines of setting the bar too high for himself. He's good here, but he has been much much better.
Adams role here seems to be more geared to showing her body post-pregnancy at first, but it doesn't take long for her performance to sink in and allow us to see a different side of the actress. She is literally in the middle of everything at the core of the film. She is the key manipulator, the person who must play every side in order to get out alive and how she seamlessly transitions from one personality to another is nothing short of spectacular. In a film filled with fantastic actors doing great work, her performance stands the tallest.
Cooper on the other hand is given very little do in a role that basically requires him to act like a spoiled child and get violent when he doesn't get his way. It's not the actor's fault, the character of FBI agent DiMaso just isn't all that interesting beyond his self applied hair perm. In fact, the best scenes with Cooper are the ones between him and his superior played by a hysterically low key Louis C.K. Their scenes together and that ice fishing story are arguably the best scenes in the entire film and without a doubt the funniest.
The two actors in supporting roles, Renner and Lawrence, actually have characters that despite being more in the background, are arguably more complex than any of the main characters. Renner, who is playing this sort of too good to be true political figure, is an interesting fellow. He clearly has nothing but good intentions with trying to rebuild his city and bring jobs back to those who need them, but the unfortunate thing about what he is trying to do is that it is impossible to accomplish through good will alone, forcing him to deal with the mob underworld to get the wheels turning.
Lawrence as Bale's actual wife is a whole other story. She proves once again that she is much more than just a pretty face in a role that couldn't be further from her more crowd appeasing turn as Katniss in the Hunger Games movies. She is loud, obnoxious and a lot of fun in that drunk slutty wife sort of way. She is such a frustrating character though, meaning that a lot of people may mistake her performance here as a little too good and end up disliking her in the process. Plus, it doesn't get much better than watching her rock out to Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" just after condemning her husband to a death sentence.
All of this stardom though is wasted in a film that, when it comes down to it, just isn't all that interesting and takes way too long to get to the point. Did we really need that much of a lead in to the actual con? It's all too easy to mistake the film for being more than it is simply because of the amount of talent on screen at any given time. In a way, that is the real con being pulled off here. The director assembled his usual suspects, placed them all into roles that he knew they could pull off without much effort and unleashed it on an unsuspecting public who likely will never realize it was all just one big ruse to gain momentum during awards season. This could be the sliest piece of Oscar bait ever released.
Now, this isn't a horrible film, nor is it a bad one per say, but it just isn't as good as it thinks it is and it isn't really all that deserving of all the accolades being thrown its way. On the acting side of things, the film is without a doubt a success, how could it not be with this dream line up? But that's the problem, the cast is just too good for the material and have all done much better work in the process. If American Hustle goes on to win multiple awards this year, then that would be the biggest hustle in awards history.