The individual parts work well on their own right, but do not fit seamlessly when assembled together.
For American Hustle, David O. Russell assembles a cast largely comprised from his previous two crowd pleasing films, Christian Bale and Amy Adams from 2010’s The Fighter, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. His cast selection proves to be a winning formula as the most pleasing aspect of the film is the superb acting. Because the film features con artists at work it is easy to anticipate the lies on top of lies procedure, therefore, the love triangle that forms between the three leads becomes the real emphasis of the story. Regardless of being able to predict what will happen before it does, American Hustle is still a ride despite its many shortcomings.
The film begins circa 1978 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City as an overweight man named Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is seen gluing hair on his head in an attempt disguise himself as the con-artist he truly is. Irving recalls being surrounded by shady schemes all of his life—first one involved breaking store windows as a youngster because his dad owned a glass business. Since then he has dabbled into a wide range of schemes from stealing art pieces to running a dry-cleaning store that does more than just launder clothes. His partner in crime as well as love is the dashing Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who exudes just as much confidence and wit as Irving, only without the comically bad hairdo.
Just as the duo begins to hit their stride in scams the undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts them red-handed. In exchange for prison time Richie offers them a deal if they can setup a sting to catch four high profile targets. Their biggest target is the beloved yet corrupt mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who sometimes does shady things for good reasons. Everything goes to plan until Irving’s wife Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to ruin the plot by running her loud mouth.
American Hustle’s breezy pacing makes the runtime feel half as long, but also makes the out of focus structure even more noticeable. The hard part is telling whether or not it was Russell’s intention to make such an inconsistent film. For seemingly no reason the camera will zoom in on a body part or apply a tracking shot when movement is not necessary. Often the music works brilliantly as a companion to what is happening on the screen, but then there is the out of place “Live and Let Die” sing-along that falls completely flat. The film asks whether it is the original painter or the counterfeiter who is the true master, and it is that fine line that the film itself walks on.
Although most people are likely to remember Lawrence’s flashy and loud performance, it is Adams more understated role that is most impressive. Adams convinces the audience to continuously change their minds on what side she is really on—sometimes faithful to Bale’s character and other times overly flirtatious with Cooper. The one thing all characters share in common is neither one of them have many redeeming qualities.
The individual parts that make up American Hustle work well on their own right, but do not fit seamlessly when assembled together. There are times where the comedy works, the characters are engaging, the cinematography is purposeful, and the soundtrack fits; though it is rare that any of them occur at the same time. The final reveal is remarkably simple considering the layering of lies involved within the film. But despite the overall messiness of the arrangement, American Hustle remains watchable thanks to the wonderful acting performances.