In a holiday season that has been rife with blockbuster hits, “American Hustle” was the movie whose trailer really caught my eye. Maybe it was seeing that David O. Russell was directing — after all, he directed my favorite movie of last year, “Silver Linings Playbook,” and is one of the few people who gets away with using his middle initial besides Samuel L. Jackson. Maybe it was seeing Jeremy Renner in a role that would utilize his talents better than “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.” Maybe, instead of adding on to the litany of reasons why I wanted to see “American Hustle,” I should get on with this review. With one of the best ensemble casts put together in quite some time and with one of the industry’s hottest directors at the helm, “American Hustle” should have been a slam dunk. Rather, it turned into an overindulgent period piece whose poorly paced story weighs down a few strong lead performances.
The film opens with a shot of Christian Bale, sporting a healthy beer gut, going through the surprisingly thorough process of putting on his toupee. Bale plays the role of Irving Rosenfeld, a con man who found himself at the center of the Abscam investigation of the late 1970s. Through Bale’s voiceover, we learn how Rosenfeld came to be partners with con artist Sydney Prosser, played wonderfully by Amy Adams. Their introduction is the best sequence in the movie, culminating with a fantastic scene that makes great use of a dry cleaning apparatus. After that scene I was hooked, strapped in and ready to enjoy a great movie. Instead I muddled through the next hour plus, wishing I had gotten a watch for Christmas so I wouldn’t have had to keep fishing my phone out of my pocket to check the time.
“American Hustle” first starts to hit some bumps with Jennifer Lawrence’s appearance as Rosenfeld’s crazy wife and mother of his adopted son. After a few humorous responses to her husband’s questions, her character soon becomes a grating presence that commandeers every scene she is in, usually not for the better. Bradley Cooper’s role as conflicted FBI agent Richie DiMaso feels eerily similar to the arrogant jerk he played back in 2005’s “Wedding Crashers.” DiMaso is a man who lives with his mother, uses hair curlers, and loves to yell at anyone and everyone. I can understand that Cooper and Lawrence both play more antagonistic roles, but during the middle of the movie they completely overpower the duo of Bale and Adams. Bale could barely get a word in edgewise as Russell pushed him aside to explore a tryst between Cooper and Adams that is funny at times but uncomfortable on the whole.
When the main roles were too busy competing for screen time, the secondary characters were really able to shine. First and foremost is Jeremey Renner as Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito. While not defusing bombs like he was on screen a few years back, Renner felt very natural as the Italian family-man mayor and was the easiest character to sympathize with in the whole movie. Another great performance was by Louis C.K. He felt perfectly cast as the timid, no-nonsense FBI boss. This is C.K.’s second solid movie performance of 2013 after Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” I was pleasantly surprised to see Robert De Niro pop up, playing a mobster, of course. With a movie whose “starring” list falls onto a second page, it was good to see some great performances from names that would be closer to the bottom than the top.
My biggest gripe with this movie is the plot. “Some of this actually happened” was the disclaimer shown at the beginning of the movie, and accordingly, Russell doesn’t get too caught up in the nitty-gritty details of the scandal. However, my problem is not with the story itself but with how it is told. The pacing goes from lightning quick to dragging on like a four-hour accounting class. Character motivations were unclear, and coincidences come out of the woodwork at the end, a telltale sign of poor storytelling. I think that “American Hustle” is suffering from an identity crisis. It can’t decide whether to be a slick and funny con artist caper, a cop/FBI investigation movie or a period character study. In the end, it tries to be all three and ends up being entirely forgettable.
On paper, “American Hustle” should be awesome, but after seeing it I was left disappointed. I still can’t believe that this movie didn’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority in that regard, but as always it is up to the viewer, to decide. All I am saying is that I see no need to hustle into theaters to see this one.