In the late 1970s, the FBI busted a con man named Melvin Weinberg. Weinberg had created a company called London Investors, which promised average folks the chance at a massive loan for a small upfront fee. Of course, Weinberg pocketed the cash and never paid out a single loan. After the arrest, agreed to help bust people he did business in the art fraud business, but the FBI sniffed out an even bigger case that Weinberg could assist with: nailing corrupt politicians taking bribes. Using fictional sheiks as a front for the money. Known as "Abscam" (short for "Arab scam," or, if you believe the FBI, "Abdul scam"), this series of stings (and the subsequent fallout) serves as the inspiration for director David O. Russell's new comedy, American Hustle.
Wait, comedy? Yes, despite the "award season" advertising, Russell's latest is actually very funny, anchored by Russell's new muse Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso, the fictional power-hungry FBI agent who busts Irvin Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), the film's version of Weinberg, and his assistant / mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Russell certainly aspires to make more of a balanced picture, with half of the film devoted to gangster-movie thrills, but the comedy and performances buoy an uneven, nearly sloppy movie that often seems to lose track of what it's about.
The screenplay for American Hustle -- then titled American Bullshit -- appeared on the 2010 "Black List", Hollywood's (increasingly commercialized) list of the best unproduced projects. Although I can no longer track down the source, I recall praise for the script, by Eric Singer Warren, specifically directed at how each piece of it fit together like clockwork, with every intricate twist and turn paying off gloriously at the end. The finished version of American Hustle (with the screenplay now co-credited to Russell) displays none of that tightness or turn-on-a-dime plotting, and to its detriment -- the characters still play the long con, but there's almost no tension or intrigue. Scenes that are meant to be nail-biters, such as one involving a translator, abruptly jump to a conclusion. Reports suggest the actors were free to improvise, and many of the performances here definitely overshadow the film's story...and not in a good way.
The biggest impediment is Christian Bale, playing Rosenfeld. As is the norm with Bale's work, there's no denying he's committed to the character, having gained nearly 50 pounds and shaved his head (the film opens with an amusing and disturbing sequence of him applying his elaborate hairpiece and comb-over), but he doesn't invest the character with much of a personality. In the end, despite the visual transformation and a number of tics, it's still just Bale running lines, with adjustments to volume. Some of his "little man" complex in his moments with Adams and his impossible friendship with Abscam target Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) manages to connect, but they're the exception, not the rule.
Thankfully, Cooper and Adams pick up Bale's emotional slack. On the surface, DiMaso is a cocky hotshot desperate for a big break, but Russell and Cooper undercut his success, painting him as hilariously ineffectual. He's less of a rising star as he is a whiny kid, frequently flying into a rage when people try and tell him he can't have his way. Cooper also shares great scenes with Louis C.K., who makes a big impression in a small role as DiMaso's FBI boss, whose wisdom is wrapped up in a story about ice fishing. Adams, meanwhile, infuses the film with what little warmth there is to be had, as a woman who sees past Rosenfeld's massive gut and awful hair to the lonely dry cleaner who hears the sadness in Duke Ellington. She doesn't have as much screen time as she should, and some of it is eaten up by her rivalry with Rosenfeld's wife (Jennifer Lawrence, who pulls a neat trick by being as obnoxious as possible but still generating a little sympathy, in the end), but all of her work is top-notch.
As a director, Russell's style tends to change from film to film, but here he adopts someone else's. From the opening narration through to the many long shots and emphatic use of period music to score big sequences, there's no question he's trying to channel GoodFellas. It's not a good fit for Hustle, both because the story (as it appears on screen) isn't that operatic, and also because Russell's vision of the film is oddly small and cramped, backing away from the scope that defines Scorsese's movies. The most interesting thing going on cinematically is his strange fascination with hands: the camera frequently drifts off of faces and down to hands, folded on tables, gesturing, etc. In a more sly or clever film, this would be funnier, the film itself watching for the sleight of hand, but, although the film is entertaining, American Hustle stops at slight.
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