David O. Russell could not have come back in better form after taking six years off after the failure of I Heart Huckabees. Taking his bad reputation of behind the scenes tantrums, Russell managed to hit Hollywood harder than ever with The Fighter and later Silver Linings Playbook. His latest, American Hustle, mixes the brilliant actors of both his previous two films making one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Set in 1978 two con-artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), are hired by FBI agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help arrest four other con men. This, somewhat based on a true story, was the sting operation titled: ABSCAM.
Delving a little deeper into the plot of the story reveals that the film has very little to do with the sting operation and more to do with Irving’s affair and love for Sydney. It much resembles Silver Linings Playbook in which Russell sets aside Pat Solitano’s bipolar disorder in place for a more conventional romantic-comedy. However, the plot is the least of what American Hustle has to offer as the aesthetic look of the 1970s couldn’t be more amusing to the eye. Every frame of this picture transports the audience to that time period, making it one of the most genuine moviegoing experiences of the year.
The opening gets a hoot with showing a close-up of Bale’s overweight stomach and tracking up to see his mess of a comb over. Sure, Bale has been known to go through weight change for his different roles, but this is unlike any of his others, especially with having just seen Out of the Furnace three weeks prior. Unlike going from roles like The Machinist or The Fighter to The Dark Knight, Bale gains an unnerving amount of weight for the role of Irving Rosenfield, but it only adds to his character. It isn’t until where that opening scene goes that you are immediately involved with what these characters are doing, which is what the film is honestly all about: the characters.
One of the awe-inspiring aspects of Amy Adams is that she is essentially playing two characters here. The first is Sydney Prosser, a stripper who meets Irving and falls in love only to become his coworker; the second is British aristocrat Edith Greensly. While you think she may be one character, there comes a moment where you think that she may be conning everyone and actually is Ms. Greensly, or the other way around. It is a fantastic character trait that continually keeps you guessing until the end even when the film gives you an answer. Not to mention how foxy Adams is, in and out of her British accent.
It isn’t until Irving and Sydney meet Richie DiMaso that the ABSCAM plot comes forward. Bradley Cooper brought his best performance with David O. Russell last year in Silver Linings Playbook, but he surpasses that thoroughly in the role of nutty DiMaso. Some of the best scenes (actually the most humorous) involve Richie trying to get his operation underway by his boss (Louis C.K.). The way the scenes are shot and the comedic timing between the both of them is wonderful in the darkest of humor. But even when DiMaso is outside the office with Irving and Sydney the scenes spark from quick, witty dialogue that has you constantly wondering who is conning who.
The comparisons of American Hustle to films from Martin Scorsese are inescapable, especially Goodfellas. I find it slightly amiss to compare the both of them even with similarities in style or storytelling, however, with what there is to compare it is a fun aspect to watching Russell’s newest work. Especially with having seen The Wolf of Wall Street a week after seeing Hustle, it is obvious who has a better handle on their storytelling, but that doesn’t mean Russell doesn’t construct a great film here. His direction is even paralleled to Scorsese, except Russell likes to make notice of his shooting to be more handheld. The camera swoops, and spins, in an almost gorgeous way especially in the midst of chaos with his characters. I personally love the way Russell shoots his films and Hustle is one of the best looking films of the year with its imagery and production design.
For those who are unaware, the initial screenplay for American Hustle (previously titled American Bullshit) was on the Black List of unproduced screenplays. Written by Eric Singer, Russell came on to co-write, or fix up some things, and the end product is a script that perfectly manages to juxtapose comedy and drama. I’m not entirely sure what elements Russell added to Singer’s script, but it works either way and I have a feeling certain comedic moments are Russell’s touch. There really isn’t a joke that I didn’t find to miss; and with the written jokes there are also physical gags that are humorous because of the excess of the ’70s design.
I have briefly talked about the costume and production design, but it really is perfection. With Bale’s comb over and enormous glasses starting out the picture, it really is the look of the rest of the cast that elevate the design. Bradley Cooper’s hair is permed, his attire consists of medallions and opened buttoned shirts; Amy Adams wears nothing but opened shirts showing cleavage; Jeremy Renner who comes in as sympathetic Mayor Carmine Polito has feathered hair that looks ridiculous in all the best ways; and of course there is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s psychotic wife Rosalyn who has wild hair and obsesses about her nail polish. There are little flourishes within scenes that really give the ’70s vibe: Irving is given a microwave by Polito and Rosalyn puts metal in it only to have it explode, Rosalyn being on the extension of the house phone is a nice touch, but the look of the clubs and streets of 1970s New Jersey is unlike anything you will see this year.
A nice pace is given to the film, but eventually the film’s biggest flaw comes in its third act. You have cons after cons, this build up to an ending that you feel should leave you stunned that you didn’t put the pieces together already, but instead it just kind of ends. Imagine watching The Departed, when you are ready to conclude with your own thoughts of who the mole is, accepting Scorsese is just going to leave it open ended, and then it ends like you expect. Instead, that Scorsese masterpiece gives you a final two minutes of perfection that makes you realize what has happened the entire film and you walk out speechless. American Hustle doesn’t have that, but just gives an explanation and concludes. With such a well paced and built up plot being churned by Russell’s direction, having it just turn out all okay is anticlimactic in ways that more of a punch would have sufficed. Again, depending on perception, if you are along for the ride with these characters it won’t be completely destroy the film, but it does make a dent.
I hate using this when explaining what it is like to watch a movie, but in the case of American Hustle I feel it is needed: the film is fun. However, within the fun there is some of the smartest writing this year, wonderful performances and direction, and perfect production design that can’t go unnoticed with an anticlimactic third act that pulls its parachute rather than hitting at full speed. I don’t particularly know as much about the ABSCAM operation as some, but that is also because a lot of the details are still locked away. But that’s okay, because when the film ends and the credits roll, I don’t particularly think David O. Russell did either.