The ’70s were such a transformative time period in American history. The music, the fashion, the new varieties of entertainment, and corruption in all forms of authority, from the lowly street cop to the the highest levels of government, all came together in that lost decade to create a tapestry of the American Dream as painted on black velvet and sold out of the back of a gas station. That was the 1970s and looking back, it was a very ugly time.
The new film, American Hustle, looks to take viewers back to the ugly time and remind them the American dream is just that–a dream, and only those willing to do whatever it takes, get to drink from that chalice. David O. Russell (I *heart* Huckabees, Spanking the Monkey, Silver Linings Playbook) and a cast of Oscar statues team up to tell the tale of con artists plying their trade in late ’70s New York.
With the FBI onto their game, many grifters worked with the bureau to bring down bigger fish–or some cases, innocent people to save their own hides. American Hustle uses the fact-based Abscam cases as it model, where the FBI used fake Middle Eastern money men to set up corrupt politicians and business leaders. This was in the wake of Watergate and if the President of the United States could fall, everyone was fair game.
Christian Bale leads as Irving Rosenfeld, an owner of a chain of dry cleaners and a second-generation glass salesman who cons hard working people who are down on their luck by charging absurd finders fees for fake loans.
Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a nutcase stay-at-home mom who dreams of getting out and living in this crazy world, and resents Irving for keeping her cooped up. She uses her eight-year-old son, who Irving adopted as his own, to manipulate her husband to do what she needs, more than what she wants.
When Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his life changes. Sydney represents everything that he wants and he falls madly in love with her. Irving eventually brings Sydney in on his little loan fee con game and finds out that she plays it better than he does. Sydney would do anything to escape her anonymity and she assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a wealthy Londoner with supposed deep financial connections.
With Lady Edith by his side, Irving is able to expand his shyster business to the point that it attracts the FBI in the guise of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an agent doing everything he can to rise through the ranks of the Bureau, which includes shitting on his immediate boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.) whenever he can.
After Richie busts the con couple, he enlists them in his quest to take down Camden, New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who would do anything to get Atlantic City up and running as quickly as possible to give his constituents jobs and a better way of life.
Are you seeing the pattern here? American Hustle is all about people doing “everything they can” to have a better life. Unfortunately, the film stumbles along in trying to get this point across. The script, by Eric Warren Singer and rewritten by Russell, lays the groundwork well, but the stumbles come in the execution.
Russell’s direction is solely to blame. He is trying unapologetically to rip off Martin Scorsese, and he can’t even get close. Because of this, the production resembles more of a Golan/Globus film from the early 1980’s than the instant classic and Oscar Buzzy film that Hustle is trying to be.
While the script is strong, with some great lines, the performances are a little off-rails. Jennifer Lawrence is still, at the time of this writing, picking the scenery out from between her teeth, and Bradley Cooper’s entire performance is based around his self-given perm. Bale looks like he’s trying to elevate the shoddy direction by being the true constant in the ensemble, but everyone else is playing like caged animals and he is sorely outnumbered. Amy Adams is good as Sydney, who actually has a few layers to her character, and Jeremy Renner’s Carmine has his heart in the right place and near the end of the film, when the con starts to turn, he conveys true emotion in his performance.
While billed as comedy, American Hustle is not funny. The audience I saw it with laughed in parts, but they laughed at the gaudy costumes, and the biggest laugh came when Bradley Cooper appeared with curlers in his hair, a scene that has been in every trailer and commercial for months. Bad fashion and hairstyles isn’t comedy; it’s history. If that is where you are mining your comedy from, you are doing it wrong.
The one truly solid aspect of American Hustle is in the stellar soundtrack by Danny Elfman who leans heavily on Jeff Lynne (ELO) tracks and other great period pieces. Russell knows when and how to use them for greatest effect. Perhaps this is as close to a Martin Scorsese comparison he will get, and Scorsese is a master of music scoring a film.
American Hustle is a long, bloated character piece that tries to be a comedy and a con caper, but really fails at both. It’s an okay film that has a great soundtrack, and few stand out performances, and more hype than it truly deserves. In other words, it’s a lot like the 1970s, and maybe that was Russell’s goal all along.
American Hustle is rated R and opened in wide release on December 20, 2013.