American Hustle is a perfect example of style dominating substance, an elegant-looking feature that provides bite through its vibrant characters but fails to deliver a fully coherent and definitive plot. David O. Russell’s film centers on a con man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who works with his seductive partner that fakes being British, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), to effectively steal from people who hope to get loans. Convincing them that their loans will be acquired overseas, in large part to Sydney’s provocative clothing and courting of the potential spenders, the people invest a hefty chunk of change in order to get their fair share back. The financial system is in shambles since many people often cite Carter’s failings to help Americans acquire the loans they desire. While their system originally works marvelously, they are caught by Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent that hopes to use them to catch other criminals.
At the top of their list is Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a lovable man that involves himself with criminal organizations in order to secure funding to better New Jersey. Rounding out the cast is Jennifer Lawrence playing Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, and she’s a ferocious piece of work. The plot increasingly escalates into unreliable moments from most of the main characters, particularly Irving’s sporadically truthful narration. He provides insight into his childhood and how he came to own a laundromat and various companies, but leaves out particular details later in the film regarding important moments that feels like a cheap narrative ploy. The narration jumps from person to person at times, focusing on Sydney, too, and her earlier life as a stripper and how she had finally found a man that seemed to respect her. She loves him, even if Irving’s not the most attractive man, as evidenced by Bale’s transformation for the film: he has a significant belly and a mess of a combover.
This is a film defined by its performances, all of which are awards-caliber. Bale is quietly excellent in the lead, once again delivering a tremendous performance when his is the least showy. Adams brings to life an intelligently drawn and confident woman that showcases her ability to mix charm in one scene and intensity in another. Lawrence and Cooper are the standouts: the former provides a delightfully off-the-charts mother with vivacity and a desire to love while the latter shows a determined man who hopes to prove himself to just about everyone. And let’s not forget Renner, who is being duped through the entire film and does not feel like he should be; he’s a genuinely nice character who cares about his family and city dearly. The supporting cast is also terrific, with Louis C.K. providing wonderful bits of humor and Robert De Niro having a brilliant cameo. It’s an interesting moment, considering the parallels the film draws to Goodfellas: each film has crime in a particular city with potentially dangerous individuals who were brought up in this world, all with the protagonist’s narration.
Yet no matter how much Russell tries to stray from these films and establish this as his own work, it feels like a mish-mash of various effective moments in other films of this genre with familiar twists and turns. There are genuinely original moments with a microwave and a cross-examination between Cooper and C.K.’s characters that brings plenty of laughs. Russell’s film is occasionally hilarious, often funny at the least, thriving on its characters more so than anything else. But the plot never truly grasps what it wants to be about. I feel as if there were missed opportunities on important social commentary that Russell instead decided to use for having his characters go through many of their familiar elements. These are dense characters, but for a film that runs over two hours, it never maintains proper pacing for character development. While American Hustle is a fun romp with grand performances from its game actors, it falls flat narratively to amount to a good, if remarkably uneven, film.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)