Former FBI supervisor John Good, who oversaw the Abscam operation that makes up the heart of American Hustle, said of the film’s plot, “If they just did it the way Abscam was done, it would be a very boring movie.” American Hustle is anything but boring, but simply not being boring is not the same as being interesting.
David O. Russell directs this story of a love triangle (parallelogram?) that sits at the center of an FBI corruption scandal, which would eventually result in the sentencing of six congressional representatives and one senator to prison. Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as smalltime con artists that the FBI flips to work for them. Or do they? From the very beginning the film makes it clear you should never be sure who is playing whom, so don’t be surprised to see double and triple crosses. That’s actually the least interesting part of this film.
What is very interesting is that first act that plays out like the warmest homage to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. You have the dual narrators, a behind-the-scenes peek at a criminal operation, and some fun period moments. Bale and Adams shine in these early scenes, but especially Adams. She’s sultry, electric, and vulnerable all at the same time. The two of them are also fairly grounded, which can not be said for the rest of the film.
We’re soon introduced to Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s characters. Both are holdovers from Russell’s last film, Silver Linings Playbook, and neither has ditched the manic energy their characters exhibited there. In fact, at times they feel they could be playing the same characters. When Cooper’s Richie DiMaso loses his cool and takes a phone to his boss’ head, you wonder if he has been missing therapy visits since that dancing competition.
That schism between the two pairs is what brings an otherwise entertaining film down several notches. Is it funny? Sure. Is it dramatic? Yes, that too. The trouble is you may never be certain which emotion Russell wants you to feel. A lot of time is spent focused on the characters’ clothes, as if to say to the audience, “Look, people dressed funny in the 70’s!” Yes, we get that from any countless number of sitcoms. There are dramatic turns, such as the aforementioned phone incident, but it gets played for laughs here—or at least the audience I saw the film with thought so. There’s a showdown with a mafia tough guy (a goodfella, if you will), but all dramatic tension is robbed by the slapstick surroundings.
Is American Hustle a good film? I’m not sure. It’s certainly not a great film, and it certainly is an entertaining one. Much like Silver Linings Playbook, I find myself having enjoyed the acting performance more than the actual film. It’s a carnival ride full of bright, tacky polyester clothing, but much like funnel cake and cotton candy, it will likely leave you wanting for something heartier.