In just a few short years, David O. Russell has gone from being a director that very few may have heard of from films like “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees” to being a pretty big name in the industry, earning back to back Oscar nominations for Best Director for 2010’s “The Fighter” and 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” Now he seems poised to make it three in a row with his latest project, a tale of corruption and con-artistry entitled “American Hustle,” bringing back the simple, yet elegant, style that got him noticed in the first place.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a professional con artist who deals in phony business deals, fake art, and dry-cleaning. At a party, he happens to meet Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and falls in love with her, eventually revealing exactly what he does for a living. Though he initially thinks he’s lost her by telling her about his profession, instead it turns out that she wants in on the operation. After carrying out several deals, they get busted by the feds, including Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who offers them a kind of “Get out of jail free” card by proposing that they help him nab other con artists. They accept the deal, but the operation quickly grows larger than expected when Richie sets his sights on a politician, Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is looking to rebuild Atlantic City.
“American Hustle” continues Russell’s streak of films that feature oddly structured narratives. “The Fighter,” which I still hold is a vastly overrated film, was odd in that its story was pretty much built entirely out of clichés. “Silver Linings Playbook” was strange in how the first half of the film was fantastic, focusing on the relationship between a man recently released from a mental hospital and a woman who has her own set of problems, while the second half felt like a completely different movie, focusing on a dance competition. This time around, Russell switches up his narrative convention yet again.
The first act is a little mixed up in itself, but in a fascinating way. The film begins by putting us right in the middle of the sting involving Mayor Polito, causing us to have to figure out what’s going on on a moment-to-moment basis. Eventually we do jump back to the beginning of the story, getting filled in on the con artists, them getting busted, and their agreeing to help the feds. Basically this act is the set-up for the major con that our players are going to try and pull off. It whets our appetite for things to come, knowing that if they’re going to pull this off, they’re going to need a lot of skill and a massive amount of luck.
Then we come to the second act, which is where things hit a bit of a slump. It’s not so bizarre as to feel like it belongs in another movie (a la the second half of “Silver Linings Playbook”), but it does feel like it puts the film on hold for far longer than it needs to. We’ve had the character introductions, the set-up, and the plan pretty much laid out before us, so what use it is to have the film go into hibernation while we wait for the operation to begin officially?
At the very least, this time is used to show us the difficulties Irving is having in trying to keep his two lives separate, one being with his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), the other being with his new lover and the whole operation they’re trying to set up with Richie. Other parts of this section are filled with Richie’s homelife, attending a party with the Mayor, and Rosalyn blowing up a microwave, none of which really helps the story move forward.
When it does start moving again, the execution and payoff are satisfactory. We have everyone in their proper place, with everyone trying to do what’s best for themselves. All that’s left is to see who’s going to come out on top. There’s a little con-artistry involved, of course, but nothing particularly mind-blowing. However, it is enough to put a smile across your face as you see all the pieces of the plan fall into place, especially when that plan ends up being something completely different than expected.
If we were just going by the narrative, then “American Hustle” wouldn’t be anything particularly special. It certainly wouldn’t have garnered as much attention as it already has, but when you factor in the outstanding ensemble, then you have something that truly warrants a recommendation. It’s rather strange how most of the awards attention has focused thus far on Lawrence, who’s excellent in the limited amount of time she’s in the film, but the true standouts here are Bale and Adams.
Bale, just coming off of a great performance in the dreadful “Out of the Furnace,” delivers another knockout here as Irving, giving us a fascinating character who’s mysterious and unpredictable. Adams is likewise fantastic as a woman caught between two men, both of whom have other women in their lives, while trying to help pull off an important con. Credit must also be given to Cooper for his portrayal of Richie, the passionate agent (in more ways than one) with a grand vision, and Renner as the mayor trying to walk the fine line between right and wrong in the name of doing what’s best for New Jersey.
“American Hustle” is a good film that could have been great had it not gone into hibernation through its middle portion. However, thanks to one of the year’s best ensembles and Russell’s keen eye for direction it becomes an enjoyable romp that will have you guessing how it’ll all work out in the end. Russell had already proven himself a force to be reckoned with, but if he continues to keep up this level of quality, I don’t think it’ll be too long before he turns one of his Oscar nominations into a solid win. 3/4 stars.
Expands everywhere starting tonight.
Now playing in theaters: Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Out of the Furnace, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Dallas Buyers Club, Thor: The Dark World, Ender's Game, Carrie, Kill Your Darlings, Gravity, Argento's Dracula, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Despicable Me 2
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Elysium, The Hunt, Touchy Feely, The Rooftop, Drinking Buddies, Inpractical Jokers: Season One, Planes, Paranoia, The To Do List, Blackfish, Paradise, White House Down, Grown Ups 2, Girl Most Likely, Robotech: The Complete Set, The Way, Way Back
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.