To describe the plot of David O. Russell’s new film American Hustle will likely only make it sound more complicated or cluttered than it is in actuality. The premise is pretty basic; two cons get caught by the FBI and thus have to help them with a few stings.
The cons are Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams). Irving is a bloated, balding man with a sharp sense of what makes desperate people tick. He loves Sydney, a former stripper prone to wielding a faux-British accent to enhance their jobs with implied nobility. Irving also, sort of, loves his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a slightly crazed younger woman with a body his wills struggle to resist, whom also has an even younger son his heart can’t resist. Sydney knows of Rosalyn, and vice-versa; the feelings aren’t fond.
Then there’s the aforementioned FBI, specifically the eager agent Richie (Bradley Cooper). Richie dreams a big game and sees a path to taking down the worst of white-collar criminals with the help of his forced associates, plus a lingering on Sydney's everything. Together, they do stuff; it doesn’t matter too much the specifics. It’s all draped in late 70s gloss, Atlantic City rebuilding deals and a distinct Soderbergh/Lumet/Scorsese vibe. Plus a few facts, the truth of which the movie dismisses immediately with a title-card stating, “Some of this happened.”
American Hustle is really easy to like, even with its handful of flaws. Those flaws are a loose narrative that occasionally meanders and loses its momentum/tension in the back half. That is only occasionally. The rest is an engaging, funny movie featuring egos clashing and what happens when somebody thinks of oneself as bigger than the system around them. Watching Bale and Adams’ character contort to their new situation, bickering along the way, allows both to pop with vicious, bitter dialogue. Adams is solid, though she doesn’t lift the material to surprising dimensions. Bale is better, clucking about his skills to Cooper, the latter of whom has never been better. Cooper’s gradual obsession with besting Bale is maybe the movie’s best maneuver and a fine example of absolute power corrupting.
Then there’s Lawrence, giving what can fairly be called a firecracker turn. Her relationship with Bale is fascinating, with a toe in jealousy, admiration and apathy. She sounds like a mere caricature, with her wailing about the stupid “Science oven!” (a microwave) or her love of a particular perfume; a blend of flowers and garbage. Lawrence makes a thin drawing of a human vibrant.
Russell manages a tone of macapper-y with flirtations of genuine drama. The movie lacks the heart of the director’s last two efforts (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook). It additionally subs out their melodramatic theatrics that hinted at maudlin nonsense.Who needs heart when you have quality?
American Hustle opens wide in Seattle on Friday.