Directed by: David O. Russell || Produced by: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison
Written by: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell || Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Robert De Niro
Music by: Danny Elfman || Cinematography by: Linus Sandgren || Editing by: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 138 minutes
American writer-director David O. Russell is similar to classical filmmaker Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity , Sunset Boulevard , Some Like It Hot ), in that Russell is a talented filmmaker who lacks a recognizable “director’s stamp,” or auteur style like, say, Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson. It’s hard to pick out a David O. Russell film unless you look up his movies’ credits beforehand. Still, after I fell head-over-heels in love with last year’s Silver Linings Playbook (SLP, 2012), easily the best romantic drama of the past several years, I was ecstatic to discover the man was returning with yet another star-studded ensemble picture just a year later. It’s unfortunate that Russell’s latest venture, American Hustle, feels tame and unfocused compared to his better films (SLP, The Fighter , Three Kings ) despite its terrific cast.
The standout of the cast is Christian Bale as the film’s lead, a brilliant, scheming conman with a heart of gold and one of the most grotesque comb-overs in cinematic history. Bale’s role in American Hustle is another example of the actor’s ability to totally embody his character from a physical standpoint, gaining a massive, unappealing gut to go along with his conman comb-over. I would be shocked if Bale doesn’t get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this role. He’s that good. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence costar as Bale’s extramarital love interest/con partner and wife, respectively, each actress offering opposing tugs on Bale’s heartstrings and showcasing opposite personalities that become increasingly interwoven in the film’s plot.
Unfortunately, one major element of American Hustle’s cast doesn’t work as well as the rest of the team members, and that problem lies with former SLP and Hangover (2009, 2011, 2013) star Bradley Cooper. Cooper’s role as an up-and-coming FBI agent, whose cornering of Adams and Bale starts the principle “hustle scheme” of the movie’s narrative, is implied to function as the film’s antagonist, but Cooper can’t pull off this sort of villain. The script hints at expanding Cooper’s character beyond that of a traditional antagonist with a small scene depicting Cooper and his fiancee struggling to make ends meet, living with Cooper’s mother in a tiny New York apartment; however, the movie never moves beyond that and Cooper is left to contend with an unsympathetic bad-guy role into which he can’t seem to fit.
Other problems have to do with the script’s inability to focus on the central narrative at hand and its persistent tendency to meander on unsatisfactory character development that doesn’t go anywhere. American Hustle tries to channel a Goodfellas (1990) aesthetic with multi-character narrations, stylized sequences of characters walking down halls in slow-motion, a non-linear story, as well as a plethora of minor characters (e.g. Robert De Niro) that come and go without much impact on the main narrative. The problem with all these attempts at cinematic stylization is that the film never capitalizes on these techniques to enhance the larger story at hand. The multitude of voiceovers from different characters at the start of the film never amount to much because we are clearly meant to sympathize with Bale’s character, and him alone, by the end of the film.
“Unfocused” is how I would describe Russell’s latest film in one word. The narrative’s tone and scope are so indecisive that it was hard for me to become invested in the movie’s muddled plot. The film becomes too vast and sprawling for its own good. Compared to the passionate thrills of last year’s romantic-redemption tale, SLP, American Hustle is a huge comedown for writer-director Russell. It’s disappointing to think what could have been if such a talented cast had been put to better use. After several quality cinematic adventures, I’ve come to expect much from writer-director Russell. This film just didn’t come together the way it should have.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Much of American Hustle dwells on extraneous characters and cinematographic techniques that don’t pay off. The screenplay’s missed opportunity with De Niro’s interesting, threatening presence is a microcosm of the movie’s confusing storytelling and indecisive nature. Bradley Cooper is a miscast, boring antagonist.
— However… most of the star-studded cast give great performances, especially Christian Bale.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED: I really wanted to love American Hustle, but I just couldn’t. The film is entertaining enough to distract you in theatres on a first viewing with its great cast, diverse performances, and a couple great sequences. In hindsight, however, I would summarize American Hustle as one of the most hollow, meaningless film narratives I’ve watched. It’s not boring or offensive, just pointless.
? I know Louis C. K. hasn’t, um, “aged well” since this film’s release, but this film could’ve used a lot more of him.