Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist. Together with his mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) they con people out of their hard earn cash by pretending to be loan sharks, taking a retainer fee, and not returning even a single cent to their customers. One day, they are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and instead of serving jail time, they are coaxed into working together with the FBI on a sting operation that focuses on nailing crooked politicians on corruption charges.
The film takes place during the late 1970s and its plot is very loosely based on the famous Abscam FBI sting; however, this film’s plot is practically made up. The key players are the three aforementioned ones, Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). As the film progresses, it focuses on character dynamics and a deranged love square (between Irving, Sydney, Richie, and Rosalyn), and also on the sting operation that involves fake identities, several fake Sheiks, and video surveillance.
Problems quickly arise when it is made aware to the audience that the character dynamics do not specifically affect the plot. Instead of having the characters create the actions (a la rule #1 of screenwriting 101), they are simply a part of the overall sting and whenever the film focuses on developing its characters, the plot seems to simply disappear only to reappear whenever it is convenient. It’s either the plot or the characters, and never both at the same time.
Bale is really good in his role, delivering a much more low key performance than ever before, and Renner is also excellent. But Adams steals the show. She continually proves with every excellent screen performance that she’s one of Hollywood’s very best working actresses and in this film it’s no exception. However, I still don’t find Cooper to be a very good actor (he doesn’t deliver more than two facial expressions per film and lacks all conviction in his voice), and Jennifer Lawrence hams up her character to a ridiculous degree. She turns Rosalyn into a caricature rather than a believable person.
So, we have structure problems in the screenplay and a few performances that pull the film back a smidge; no biggy. What else is good? Well, not much, really. At times, the film is utterly hysterical and, generally is a good comedy. But the aforementioned structural problems hinder the film from being a thoroughly excellent comedy because it’s really only funny when it focuses on plot elements. It’s funny, then it’s dramatic, then it’s funny again, then it’s dramatic again… Rinse repeat for 138 minutes.
Then, there are the technical elements: American Hustle is a really good Scorsese clone, one that imitates Casino (1995) right from the get-go. It opens with almost twenty minutes of narration that hops from one character to another, providing the audience with insight into several characters’ mentalities. But then the narration simply disappears and doesn’t resurface again until the last ten minutes of the film, during which a flimsy, forced, and convoluted “ending” rears its ugly head.
There is also the excessive use of close-up shots, in which a good 90% of the film is shot in close-ups. And then there’s the fact that the entire film (as far as I can tell) was shot with a steadicam. It provides the film with fluid tracking shots and push-ins and pull-backs, but also looks mostly floaty. So, when we get one of the many Scorsese-esque quick push-in shots, it lacks the weight of the dolly track shot and looks and feels entirely floaty and amateurish.
I like American Hustle. It’s a funny film, it looks pretty good, and some of the performances in it are terrific. But it’s also clumsy, lacks structure, and honestly, feels amateurish. It simply looks like director David O. Russell wants to copy Scorsese’s stylish filmmaking techniques but doesn’t have the strong screenplay for it or the confidence. Having shot it with thousands of close-up shots and steadicams shots hinders the “professional” look and feel and the screenplay’s mediocre. Still, I had fun, the shots are in focus, and it effectively kills 138 minutes.