American Hustle is full of nice little moments and a couple of stand out performances, but ultimately it doesn’t quite add up. It is a confusing heist movie with strange character motivations and the biggest con of the whole affair seems to be the filmmakers insistence that the screenplay was finished. This isn’t to say that there are no enjoyable moments, because there certainly are. Christian Bale and Amy Adams shine in their parts with a realistic emotional connection to the story. Director David O. Russell continues to show his technical skill behind the camera, but it is his decision making that I question in this film.
The story loosely follows some of the players involved in the Abscam scandal in the 1970’s with Christian Bale and Amy Adams providing the bulk of the story’s focus. Bale and Adams play a con artist team specializing in small time money laundering and art fraud. They are caught by Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent who recruits them to work for him in exchange for their freedom. Cooper has wild ambitions and dreams of running the kind of big time operations that will get his name in the paper. Together the team works their way from small time deals to catching crooked politicians. The biggest monkey wrench in their plans is Christian Bale’s wife played by Jennifer Lawrence. The other problem is that the film is never clear on who the audience should be caring about.
The downfall of American Hustle is not the performances, which are actually fairly solid. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are perfectly cast and perfectly realized. They have character arcs and realistic motivations for the most part. It’s when the spotlight moves to the periphery that the problems truly begin. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is fine and could even be considered good if it weren’t for the fact that it seems to take place in a different movie. At no point did I ever believe that Jennifer Lawrence could be married to Christian Bale or have a six year old son. Lawrence looks as if she’s playing dress up with her mom’s clothes. Bradley Cooper has a different problem in that he actually has two different performances. Cooper’s character changes drastically midway through the film with no clear explanations for why. The character Cooper plays at the onset of the film resembles the one at the end only in hairstyle.
Speaking of hairstyles, American Hustle really really wants you to know that it takes place in the 70’s. There are closeups and slow motion shots covering hair, suits, dresses, and dancing. Anything that is now associated with the 1970’s is given its screen time. This kind of decision making from David O. Russell is where the film really falters. Russell’s insistence of focusing on the side stuff bogs the film down and makes it feel far longer than its actual running time. He also has a problem with starting a camera shot low on a person and panning up. He does this numerous times throughout, particularly with Amy Adams who never put on an outfit that didn’t require double sided tape.
These would be small annoyances if there weren’t so many of them. There is no one single thing that derails American Hustle, but a multitude of minor problems adding up to an uneven film and lost potential. Russell has made a heist film that tries desperately to be Goodfellas. It is nowhere near the quality of Goodfellas, and fails at being a good heist film as well. The best con artist movies have a strong character as the through line. The audience needs to know who’s trying to get the best of whom and films like American Hustle lose their focus when there are too many people involved. There is a solid two thirds of this film where it isn’t clear who is in charge which is only truly a problem due to the ending that was chosen. Without going into spoilers, the ending of this film doesn’t work because it wasn’t set up properly.
I have enjoyed David O. Russell’s movies and while this certainly isn’t a film that will tarnish his legacy it falls short of films like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Bale and Adams do their best, but they can’t overcome the script issues and Russell’s insistence on focusing on all the wrong things.