“AMERICAN HUSTLE” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Dec. 18)
138 minutes | MPAA rating: R
David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is crammed with near-brilliant moments and performances.
Yet the film itself left me cold. More than cold. Alienated.
Granted, mine seems to be a minority opinion. Other scribes are tossing words like “masterpiece” and “great American comedy” at “Hustle.” Maybe they’re seeing something I missed.
Inspired (loosely) by the ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s (when the FBI lured — entrapped? — politicians into taking bribes through an elaborate ruse that involved a phony oil sheik), it’s the story of a couple of con artists who get swept up by the feds and, to avoid prosecution, agree to help the government set up an even bigger con.
The film begins with a superb wordless introduction in which con man/dry cleaning magnate Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) emerges from the shower and gets to work on the face he presents to the world. The normally cut Bale (he’s Batman, fer chrissakes) put on maybe 40 pounds to play the tubby, middle-aged Irving. Now he stands in front of a mirror creating, strand by strand, spray by spray, the world’s most atrocious comb-over ‘do. It’s awesomely funny, in an I-don’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing way.
Irving is smoking a stogie at a pool party when he gets a glimpse of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a young woman on the make both professionally and romantically. He’s ugly, she’s beautiful (unlike every other director in America, Russell looks at Amy Adams and sees rampant sexuality, God love him) and they bond over jazz. Soon he’s teaching her the ropes of financial scamming, and together they’re enjoying an erotic field day.
The catch is that Irving is married to the gold-digging Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a quintessential Jersey princess. She won’t divorce him and, anyway, Irving is absolutely crazy about her young son, whom he has adopted.
The plot kicks into high gear when Irving and Sydney run afoul of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a hugely ambitious idiot who wants to use them to go after even bigger game. And to complicate matters further, Richie develops a bad case of the hots for Sydney — who seems to reciprocate although it’s probably yet another scam.
“American Hustle” starts in the middle, then flashes back to the beginning and then forward to the end. And it’s narrated at various times by the three main characters.
Both of these narrative flourishes have the effect of distancing us from the plot, a “Sting”-like affair that requires the audience to pay attention even as Russell and Co. are chucking diversions at us. Is this deliberate misdirection or just sloppy storytelling? Can’t tell, but the upshot was that as the yarn progressed I felt less involved rather than more.
And part of the problem is that there’s not one character here with whom we can form an emotional attachment. Everybody’s using everyone else. Some filmmakers can get away with this…apparently Russell can’t. In fact the only character to engage our sympathy is Jeremy Renner’s mayor of Camden, N.J., a seemingly decent public servant (despite his retro pompadour hair style) targeted by the Feds as part of their Keystone Kops operation.
As I said, though, there are things that work superbly here. Russell is surrounded by players he’s collaborated with before on “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” and they carefully walk the line between absurdist humor and a straight-faced realism.
I was particularly taken by Lawrence’s ballsy, conniving trophy wife. The range exhibited by this young actress in her film career to date is astonishing. Can the Ozarks teen of “Winter’s Bone,” the surly action-heroine of “The Hunger Games,” the addled widow of “Silver Linings…” and the Jersey Shore-ish Roselyn all have been played by the same 23-year-old? Wow. And when Lawrence’s Rosalyn gets a bit tipsy and threatens to sink the whole sting by flirting with the entourage of a Miami mobster (Robert DeNiro), we’re seeing comic genius at work.
The production design is pure late-70s kitsch — flambouyant, in screamingly bad taste, and practically a character in its own right.
And yet… and yet…”American Hustle” lacks focus and discipline. I wanted to relate… and couldn’t.
| Robert W. Butler