Director David O. Russell’s third straight award-season hit – following 2010’s The Fighter and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook – American Hustle might be his best-received feature yet, garnering almost unanimous praise from critics and audiences and 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (Russell and Eric Warren Singer), and acting nods for stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams,Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper.
And yet, while I fully enjoyed the experience of watching this film, it also left me wanting. There’s a bit of hollow quality at work here that put me off – which is surprising, because Russell identified so well with his setting and characters in the previous two films: suburban Philly in Silver Linings and the drug-laced wasteland of Lowell, Mass. in The Fighter.
American Hustle, on the other hand, too often feels like a playground for its actors, who create these creatures with extreme physical traits – the 70s hair, the fashion, the dialect – but never seem to really get inside them. They’re showy, Oscar-nominated roles, but these aren’t real people – they’re caricatures that I never really identified with.
Now, that is kind of the point: protagonists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are playing the confidence game, pretending to be people who they aren’t in order to make a few bucks off the middle-lower class in a financial scheme. They also fall in love, but do they fall in love with each other or the characters they’re playing?
The jig is up – or so they think – when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts Sydney in a sting. They discuss fleeing, but Irving can’t leave behind his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, in a flashy role that feels the most superficial of all) – not because he’s committed to her, but because he doesn’t want to leave his stepson. So the ambitious DiMaso traps them: to avoid going to jail, Sydney and Irving agree to help catch local politicians accepting bribes in a sting operation.
American Hustle is very loosely based on the 1970s ABSCAM sting operation, in which the FBI used a conman and a fake Arab Sheik to catch politicians taking bribes in exchange for favors. While the operation successfully brought some less-than-honest officials to light, the tactics used were highly criticized, causing the FBI to reform their procedures for undercover operations.
American Hustle exploits a really interesting angle – the morals of everyone in this film are questionable, and ironically it’s the bribe-taking mayor at the heart of the sting operation (played by Jeremy Renner) who comes off as the most likable/honest character in the film. Everyone else is just out for personal gain, and the plot of the film is driven by this kind of dishonesty; if these were nice people, you think, they wouldn’t be in this situation.
One of the best-reviewed films of the year, I really dug watching American Hustle play out on a superficial level, and I imagine most audiences will have fun here – more fun than your typical Oscar favorite.
But it didn’t feel real to me: there’s an element of fake-ness that pervades the whole film, and prevented me from becoming invested in these characters or their situation. The stakes never feel real, either – we never get the sense that these characters are in any danger – and some late-film stunt casting in a cameo role doesn’t help.
In previous films, Russell has shown a genuine love for his characters; here, he seems to be laughing at them. This is a light-hearted film, in the vein of Silver Linings, with some genuinely funny moments: a conversation about a “science oven”, among other scenes, had me laughing out loud. American Hustle is a lot of fun. But it doesn’t have the heart that would make this a great film.