“He wasn’t necessarily in good shape, and he had this combover that was rather… elaborate.”
Ever since he came on the movie scene in the mid-90’s, director David O. Russell has consistently made his films with more concern for characters, mood, style, and feeling than for plot or narrative structure. That’s not to say he doesn’t end up telling a good story — he so often does — but he tends to build a world for his characters to interact in, and in turn those interactions move the plot forward, line by line, action by action, inch by inch. As a result, sometimes the stories told within his films tend to meander, which can be either good or bad depending upon how well the viewer likes or connects with the characters and the world within which they live.
His latest offering, American Hustle, is no different. Based loosely on a 1970s FBI sting operation that sought to bust corrupt government and public officials, the film is so stocked to the brim with characters that the whole production could have quite easily collapsed under the weight of all the heavy hitters listed outside on the theatre marquee. But fortunately, with David O. Russell at the helm, it doesn’t.
The story begins with a meeting between the film’s main characters and then throws us back in time to see just how all these characters got to that point, and where they go from there. We are first introduced to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a businessman and master con artist with his hand in a variety of shady exploits. Irving meets stripper-turned-secretary Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a woman who throws him for a loop and who, upon learning of his dealings, reinvents herself as British royalty in the form of Lady Edith Greensly as she joins Rosenfeld as both partner and lover, the latter role one she assumes knowing full well about Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and his son, Danny, for whom Irving is the adoptive father.
Irving and Sydney run successful schemes ripping people off through the sale of stolen art and through predatory and fraudulent loans, until they come across Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a FBI agent hellbent on bringing down corrupt individuals of Irving and Sydney’s ilk. DiMaso arrests Prosser for fraud, but is willing to drop charges and let both her and Irving walk with zero consequences if the pair can help him reel in four other con artists.
A deal is made between the trio — and a love triangle soon forms — but as DiMaso’s ambitions grow from taking down con artists to bringing down mobsters and corrupt public officials, so grow the stakes, and things begin to spiral out of control for everyone involved. As Rosenfeld states at one point in voiceover, “The art of survival is a story that never ends.” And so it is.
The story is interesting, but like other Russell films before it, American Hustle thrives on characters and atmosphere, and it’s got a heck of a lot of style to boot.
The very first scene of the film shows Rosenfeld, the master of cons and deception, preparing his unbelievably elaborate combover prior to meeting with DiMaso, the federal agent with a tightly curled perm; Prosser, Irving’s cleavage-baring partner in crime; and Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a powerful New Jersey mayor with an affinity for bright-colored suits and one heck of a pompadour atop his head.
Beyond the wild hairdos and flamboyant wardrobe is a certain visual and stylistic flare we’ve become accustomed to with David O. Russell’s films. There are camera shifts, zooms, and fast tracking shots that can either pull the viewer into the scene or pull them out depending on how the frame moves. There are also nods to filmmakers like Scorsese and P.T. Anderson and Tarantino — I gotta say, I loved that trunk shot, and the voiceovers in the beginning really drew me in. It’s quite clear Russell knows that if you want to be the best, you have to learn from the best. Heck, that’s even a theme that runs through American Hustle itself. But I digress.
One scene in particular that really shows Russell’s visual style is a scene that takes place in a disco club; a variety of colored lights flash and alter the frame as the characters dance, and then we cut to a tracking shot of Cooper’s DiMaso walking out of the crowd as a bright light strobes. Cooper moves at once both quickly and slowly across the frame, his pace deliberate but seemingly altered, his movements physically smooth but visually jagged. The effect is fantastic, and is arguably one of my very favorite shots of any film this entire year.
That lone shot is practically a metaphor for the film itself, and a particular ice-fishing story that pops up at various points in the film between DiMaso and his boss Stoddard Thorsen, played hilariously by comedian Louis C.K., is about as on-the-nose as gags come. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say we’ve all been told what happens when we assume things.
All that said, while his visual flare is on point here, Russell truly is the master of properly utilizing the eccentricities of his characters and using volatile personalities, motivations, and actions to move his story along. And he does it differently in every film. For example, where Silver Linings Playbook allows the characters’ eccentricities to create a feeling of claustrophobia so as to mimic the way its characters feel at various points in the film, the world of American Hustle is so sprawling that it really allows the characters to breathe and shift the story all over the board.
As such, the story tends to meander, but it also lets Russell’s stunning corps of actors — Adams and Cooper, especially — to explore a variety of subplots and side streets as the film moves further and further toward what may well be the point of no return. So while I wish the story were a bit more tightly woven, the narrative more structured and fleshed out, I had a lot of fun with American Hustle, and it feels like a film I will grow to enjoy more with each viewing. It’s exuberant, eccentric, and marvelously entertaining.
Grade: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Runtime: 138 minutes