Jan. 20th, 2014

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I didn’t know much about the controversial ABSCAM sting operation run by the FBI in the late ‘70s, and I made the mistake of assuming that “American Hustle” would clue me in on the important details. The movie has been billed as being about ABSCAM and the major players involved, but it’s not really interested in the scam itself. Rather, it’s a character study of con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are busted and then recruited by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help him entrap a New Jersey mayor, Carmino Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is trying to raise the funds to rebuild Atlantic City. Rosenfeld’s plan involves a fake sheikh, a mobster played by Robert DeNiro, and the involvement of Rosenfeld’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who he’s been trying to figure out how to divorce without losing custody of his son. I’m not too clear on the details, because director David O’Russell doesn’t concern himself much with how the mechanics of the sting actually work. Instead, it’s all about watching all these big personalities clash, as played by a cast of familiar faces viewers might recognize from his previous films.

I suspect that if you liked O’Russell’s last two films, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” you’ll probably like “American Hustle” more than I did. I’ve always found O’Russell hit-or-miss, and his emphasis on high-octane, improv-heavy performances has worked out well for some material but not so well for others. All the screaming and yelling in “The Fighter,” for example, was too shrill for me to take, but I thought the approach worked much better with a different set of actors and a different kind of story in “Silver Linings Playbook.” In the much more stylized ‘70s universe of “American Hustle,” with a mix of the cast from both movies, plus a few newbies like Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s hapless supervisor, I thought the final product split the difference. Individual scenes and smaller moments are wonderful, but it was difficult to track what is going on and what the stakes are in the story. Movies about con games usually depend heavily on the mechanics of the plot, and they’re almost totally missing here, instead putting the focus on the various relationships among these loopy characters. O’Russell’s directing, which felt so loose and free in “Silver Linings,” came across as kind of messy and obvious here, especially when it tried to pay homage to older films and other directors.

The film features some very good performances though, particularly from Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Adams in particular often feels like the voice of sanity in the picture, the one character who feels like a genuine human being in a sea of wackily costumed and coiffed caricatures. Christian Bale, for instance, sports an authentic pot-belly and an alarming comb-over that oversells Irving Rosenberg’s sleaziness. Fortunately, it’s an appealing sleaziness. Jennifer Lawrence is a lot of fun as Rosalyn, though her accent has a tendency to wander all over the place, and she’s a little too young for the role. Initially there are some bumps, but when Lawrence really gets going, she’s the most memorable thing onscreen. I could listen to her talk about her nail polish regimen all day, because she just sells it so well. Rosalyn could have easily just been another forgettable bimbo without Lawrence. Finishing off the main quartet is Bradley Cooper as DiMaso, who is trying as hard as everyone else to sell an image of himself that he feels he can’t quite live up to. I don’t think he manages as well as the others, thanks to a truly inexplicable FBI agent character whose motivations seem to boil down to being a little too eager to prove himself.

The big theme of “American Hustle” appears to be self-delusion, with all these characters chasing after big aspirations and working their own cons against each other, trying to figure out how to get what they really want without becoming a victim. The FBI sting just happens to be the biggest and most grandiose in conception. And from what I could decipher of what was going on, there was clearly the potential for a much more focused and biting piece of work here. There’s some satire that hits the mark, but most of the laughs in the film feel like they happened by accident, and any commentary on the hypocrisy of the law enforcement gets lost amid all the yelling and screaming. I know that David O’Russell’s capable of really black, biting satire, or at least he used to be before his films got taken over by over-the-top performances and big hair. Whatever happened to the guy who made “Three Kings”? I’d have loved to see that David O’Russell’s version of “American Hustle.”

This version? I found it occasionally entertaining, but a missed opportunity to do something much more substantive and interesting. And as good as this cast was, it pales in comparison with what I think they could have been capable of in a better movie.
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