Oscars 2014 contenders have been announced, and with The Wolf ofWall Street and American Hustle scoring five and ten nominations respectively, The Academy sure seems to love a heist film. But despite enduring comparisons between the directors (David O’Russell’s work has been perceived as “Scorsesean” on more than one occasion), the two movies couldn’t be more different. Whereas WOWS favors outrageous plot points over character arcs, American Hustle not only incorporates those arcs, but also makes them its centerpieces, so much so that the film’s narrative becomes an afterthought.
Con man Irving Rosenfeld (a pot-bellied and balding Christian Bale) has made a thriving career of giving out fraudulent loans and selling phony art, along with his partner/girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who poses as a sexy British aristocrat in order to lure in unsuspecting victims. When FBI agent Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper) busts their scams, he offers to release them on the sole condition that they lend him their bamboozling “expertise” on additional undercover missions, including entrapping New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) in a bribe scheme and exposing corruption in Congress. But with unexpected budding romances, aspirations gone awry, and Irving’s borderline-lunatic wife (Jennifer Lawrence) threatening to upend it all, the mission becomes more complicated than anyone anticipated.
From the very first words that appear on screen—“Some of this actually happened”—it’s apparent that Hustle isn’t interested in being a historically accurate reproduction of Abscam. In fact, I’m still at a loss as to why O’Russell would choose the 1970s scandal as the foundation of his narrative, as aside from the constant guessing-game we play over who’s really conning whom, the details of the sting operations are—dare I say it?—dreadfully boring. Perhaps in an effort to spice things up a bit, he and co-writer Eric Warren Stinger throw in elements of dark comedy, drama, and romance into what is, at the surface, a crime tale. Though entirely possible for a film to inhabit more than one genre, the yawn-inducing nature of this plot just isn’t gripping enough to pull off that cocktail of categories. The leftover effect is a disjointed storyline that comes off as suffering a bit of an identity crisis.
Instead, the capers, the betrayals, and love triangles all become purely vehicles to propel what are essentially the characters' emotional journeys. O’Russell himself has spoken at length about foregoing a more "procedural" script for one that allowed him to delve deeper into his now-signature cinematic tropes of defeat and reinvention. If that's the intention, he delivers spectacularly, etching lovably flawed individuals who are reaching, often by half-witted and hilarious means, for a shot at a better life. It’s a rare filmmaker who can distract a heist film with multiple characters studies and get away with it. O’Russell succeeds largely by way of his deep love and masterful command of his characters, but no less due to the mesmerizing cast he has assembled to embody them.
It is impossible to take your eyes off this ensemble, and not just because they’re bedecked in unabashedly kitschy 70's garb (from Richie’s fierce perm and Sydney’s plunging necklines to Rosalyn’s oversized furs and Irving’s tinted aviators, hair and wardrobe must have been the most fun departments to work in on this film.) Christian Bale disappears into his role as a crook with a conscience, thanks in part to his unbecoming comb-over and surprisingly spot-on Bronx accent,* but also to his profound understanding and portrayal of the heart hiding under the layers of Irving’s crushed velvet suits.
Bradley Cooper reaches new levels of adorable as an
ambitious, if not slightly bumbling, law enforcement official who’s desperate to make it big, but constantly getting in his own way. A small-town beauty with an alter ego, Amy Adams is raw and vulnerable as Sydney, sly and seductive as Edith Greensley, and absolutely riveting as both. Jennifer Lawrence is the (surprise, surprise) unequivocal scene-stealer in a role that Irving himself puts best: “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” Manipulative, high-strung, dangling her son in front of her husband as bait to keep him committed to their marriage, Rosalyn is a temperamental grenade and Lawrence rightfully relishes the part. Forget Hustle’s mediocre plot; you could film these people sitting in a room watching paint dry, and they’d still set the screen on fire. Here, as broken dreamers looking for second (or third, or fourth) chances to find the glory they so intensely desire, their performances and chemistry lend the story an energy and soul that save it from becoming a total snooze.
But the film’s crowning glory isn’t even part of its diegesis. American Hustle’s soundtrack comprises songs that aren’t necessarily from the story’s decade or even by U.S artists, and yet ooze a retro aura that complements—no, enhances—the era perfectly. From Duke Ellington’s swingy jazz to the hard rock of the Electric Light Orchestra, the music often takes the place of dialogue in scenes and becomes a character all its own, with a swagger that the actors themselves can’t achieve.
For all its clunky storytelling, there are enough compensating qualities of American Hustle that make it undeniably alluring. It may not be the best film I’ve seen this year,** but in compelling the audience to root for the redemption of its ruptured characters, as well as its own trajectory to the top of award ballots everywhere, it’s a reminder that the American Dream may still be one worth chasing.
*The guy is Welsh! Welsh! And I only know that because I just Googled it. All this time I thought he was Australian. Basically, Christian Bale wins at accents.