I can’t imagine anyone who has seen 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook not being excited at the prospect of another David O. Russell film with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. I certainly was. And then add gangstas and the seventies into the mix? Perfect! I had heard mixed reviews, but I was still feeling optimistic. After all, there’s never been a moment with Jennifer Lawrence where I didn’t think she absolutely nailed it – and this film is no different.
There are some truly great performances in American Hustle – it is perfectly cast. I even managed to actually like Christian Bale during the film; surely this is a feat of fantastical proportions. The subject matter is interesting, although it is a subject often tackled by filmmakers. All the characters feel like real people, with the good and the bad about them. And you really do want to find out what happens in the end. But somehow, it just isn’t enough. The film doesn’t have the effortless flow that Silver Linings Playbook had and the great ending doesn’t feel like enough of a pay-off for having sat through the previous two hours.
American Hustle is a good film. It has a great cast and an excellent director. Unfortunately, with those ingredients, David O. Russell should have given us a great film.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con man and owner of several dry cleaners, meets an enigmatic young woman, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Together they expand Irving’s ‘business’ – promising loans to desperate people, for a small fee. Their success only lasts so long before FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches them out. DiMaso promises them both their freedom as long as they help him take down four other con artists.
DiMaso is unpredictable, however. With each win, he wants to catch a bigger fish. Nothing is ever enough. Before long, DiMaso has them trying to take down Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). What starts as a job to take down one politician turns into an operation involving members of Congress and the Senate, as well as the mafia. Irving and Sydney need to come up with the best plan they’ve ever had in order to save themselves, their friends, and Irving’s family.
Why should we give a damn about a gangsta?
Many of the critically acclaimed films about gangstas, mafia men, and con artists have one thing in common: central characters who are fundamentally unlikeable. There seems to be this Hollywood idea that these ‘bad guys’ are only that – bad guys. That just isn’t true, even bad guys can have likeable qualities. That is something that American Hustle nails. The film also doesn’t glamorize the criminal lifestyle the way that many other films do. Irving is stressed, worried for his loved ones. He has money, but he doesn’t live lavishly.
Irving is a con man and he doesn’t pretend to be something else. He makes money off desperate people who really could use a break. But he is also a family man and cares deeply for his adopted son. He loves Sydney deeply. While he isn’t in love with his wife, he still treats her well – he doesn’t abuse her or ask too much of her, in fact he even suggests that she get out more and find friends or a lover. He is a con man with a conscious, but not in a clichéd way. Carmine becomes his close friend, leading to a real moral dilemma for Irving: save his own skin and continue with the operation or save his friend?
The traditional ‘bad guy’, the con man/criminal, isn’t really the antagonist of the film. That part falls to the unstable FBI agent, Richie DiMaso. Who says that only criminals get hungry for more? DiMaso is blinded by his ambition to make a name for himself, that he destroys the operation and himself. I did leave the cinema hoping that if the FBI ever did actually behave that way, they better not any more. DiMaso goes after people who have given him no reason for him to want to take them down.
We also end up caring deeply for the corrupt politician. Jeremy Renner’s amazing performance as Carmine Polito has us hoping that this politician might just get away with it. Yes, he’s doing some dodgy dealings to get what he needs, but he is doing it for a good reason. He wants to create jobs and pump money into his constituency. How is that a bad thing? Carmine is a good friend to Irving and an excellent father. He does what he has to, to survive. Just as Irving’s narration says, ‘Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, but you had to survive?’
The other standout performance comes, unsurprisingly, from Jennifer ‘scene-stealer’ Lawrence (the other being Jeremy Renner). She plays Irving’s depressed and manipulative wife. She throws a spanner into every one of Irving’s plans while managing to convince herself that she is always helping. Every scene she is in, she is the only one you find yourself wanting to watch. She is an awful person, but all I wanted was more screen time for her. By the end of it, I wondered, what would the film told from her perspective be like? Let’s face it, every film with Jennifer Lawrence as the main protagonist would be made infinitely better.
Sometimes bullshit is just bullshit
Being a con man is making an art out of bullshit. Making a film about a con artist is basically the same thing. The content and plot of any con artist film is ultimately bullshit, the trick being to make it intriguing enough to carry the film’s run time. Unfortunately, American Hustle doesn’t manage to pull it off. The beginning of the film is incredibly slow to start, featuring a scene from the middle of the story (why?!) before telling the rest of it in completely linear fashion. To give the story added depth, it relies too heavily on the use of voice-overs from different character’s perspectives, and it just felt too long.
The plot relies too heavily on the whims of someone unstable: Richie DiMaso. This could make for an interesting story, instead, the plot just seems to ramble all over the place. It feels disjointed and choppy. There are too many different ‘wants’ the characters need to achieve for the audience to work out what they should be wanting for the character. The rules constantly change. Yes, this is correct for DiMaso’s character, but there isn’t enough of a thread for us to hold on to as the narrative strides forward.
Verdict: Good film, but disappointing given the potential. Excellent performances from a fantastic cast and characters with enough real flaws as well as likeable traits.