Based on an actual operation in the 1970s by the FBI — the film claims at the beginning that “some of this actually happened” — American Hustle is a funny, exciting and wholly enjoyable movie that might not work all the way but it does enough things correctly to definitely warrant a watch. It might be a bit too convoluted at times, and it does eventually throw too many characters into the mix, but it fires at all cylinders and even if you’re not sure who’s doing what and why, it never stops being fun.
Given how complex the story eventually gets, it’s hard to even set it up, because what it initially looks like isn’t what it winds up being. It essentially boils down to something like this: A couple of con artists, Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams), are incredibly successful at parting money from people. They’re caught, one day, but FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who forces them into helping him uncover and catch corruption in the political system. Their initial target is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), but things soon get bigger and more complex than that.
For instance, by the time a cameoing Robert De Niro enters the picture, Polito is no longer the target, and the method by which the characters are attempting to ensnare their victims has become rather silly. It works while you’re watching the film, I suppose, but looking at it afterward makes it seem a little bit ridiculous, even if that’s what actually happened.
At times, American Hustle is far less interested in its narrative than in the characters who populate it. Minor details become the focal point of scenes. We get to know these characters so well that we can predict some of their actions before they do them. One character will eventually start feeling sorry for the mayor, and we can see that early on, even if it doesn’t amount to anything until the finale. That can almost work against the story, as it gives it an element of predictability, but there are still enough twists thrown into the mix to keep it feeling fresh.
Another way it attempts to add a splash of unpredictability to the mix is to have Jennifer Lawrence show up — she, in her most unhinged role ever — and chew the scenery. She plays the wife of Irving, and plays a comedic presence while also causing trouble thanks to her character’s big mouth and uncaring attitude. Lawrence has the least screen time of the five main actors, but I think it would be fair to say she steals most of the scenes she’s in.
Actually, it seems the main actors are all at least somewhat playing against type. Christian Bale has a gut and a baldness-disguising comb over, and is playing a bit of a schlub. Bradley Cooper forgoes his “sexiest man alive” title to play a possibly crazy FBI Agent with curly hair. Amy Adams has a British accent for lots of the film — by design; it’s not as if she drops it accidentally — and is sexed up like never before. And Jeremey Renner is an enthusiastic, chain-smoking, Joisey Boy.
It’s surprising how funny American Hustle is. I suppose it shouldn’t be — the film is directed by David O. Russell, who can do both drama and comedy very effectively — but I expected a less comedic film for some reason. You’ll be laughing for a good chunk of this movie. It keeps the tone light, and even has some running gags. Take, for example, a fishing story that Louis C.K. continually attempts to recite to Bradley Cooper. Or how the Jennifer Lawrence characters has a propensity for setting things on fire. She blows up a microwave with reckless abandon.
There’s a real heart here, and it’s hard not to feel the affection that the filmmakers had for this story and these characters. Sure, most of them are bad people, but they’re interesting and most of them are quite likable. In fact, too much affection might be what causes the narrative’s downfall. By trying to fit in every last detail, to take things in new directions so constantly, it becomes too much of a confusing mess to really work. You’ll get the gist but just try to remember the names of anyone outside of the Big 5.
It’s likely that the only reason the film was set in the ’70s is so that a ’70s soundtrack could have some justification, but the film does a good job of using its time period. In addition to some jokes that would only work at this point in history, we also get to be taken back to a different time for a couple of hours. That’s a reason to watch period pieces, and it can be one to watch American Hustle, too. I’m sure it’ll get compared (unfavorably) to Goodfellas or other Scorsese films — and not without reason — but I think it can exist alongside those, not in direct competition with them.
American Hustle is a good, maybe even great film. It’s energetic, stylistic, funny, and very enjoyable. The filmmakers clearly care about this material and that comes through in the final product; there’s a real heart here, in other words. Where it falters, it does so because of over-ambition and an attempt to add too much complexity to the narrative. I think this is a film that’s worth checking out.