American Hustle stumbles before finding its footing

2 ½ out of 4 stars

Con artists have never been more scatterbrained or completely oblivious, more driven by emotional attachment or ambition, more fashionably dressed or well-coiffed.  David O. Russell’s latest film American Hustle takes us to the funky 1970s for a romp with the sleaziest of the sleaze.

Frequently funny and production-designed to a “T”, the film is unfortunately let down slightly by its high ambitions, complex construction, and overplayed tricks.  But the dramedy features a strong ensemble, whip smart dialogue, and fun plot twists that make it worthwhile.

rs_634x923-131003132248-AmericaHustle-JenniferLawrence.13Set in 1978 and based on the FBI ABSCAM operation, the story follows Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a loving couple of con artists.  When they are caught and arrested for embezzlement by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they are granted an opportunity to be released if they assist the FBI in catching other criminals like themselves.

A sting operation is put together to entrap Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) by offering him money to renovate Camden, NJ into a successful tourist town.  The con soon spins out of control, and Richie, Irving, and Sydney find themselves between a rock and a hard place (the identities of the “rock” and “hard place” are pretty hilarious when revealed).  The situation is only worsened when a love triangle develops between the three, only to be made even more complicated when Irving’s shrewish wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) throws herself into the middle of the scam.

David O. Russell (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) revised an original script from Eric Warren Singer, which is mostly successful.  The dialogue is amusing and organic, and it never stretches outside its boundaries when going into film-noir-style narration, though these moments bluntly sledgehammer the idea of “people who con themselves.”

Russell has unfortunately made things extremely complicated from the director’s chair. He combines narration from four different characters, some visual period humor, and an intricate web of doubletalk.  Ultimately, the film struggles to juggle all of its parts simultaneously.  The result is a tonally confused story that gradually loses focus as well as sympathy for its characters.  The emotionally resonant scenes aren’t allotted enough time to validate their existence and the complex story already asks too much of the audience for us to care about the characters’ stakes.

To Russell’s credit, he proves once again he is one of the greatest directors of actors working today, assembling another handful of strong performances.  His one-on-one scenes are the most successful and are evidence of a director who values intimacy and honesty.

american-hustle-posterChristian Bale gives his most grounded performance to date with slimy charm as well as some glimpses of humanity.  He acts as a focus to the actors around him as well, which is very welcome considering the manic energy radiating from everyone.  Jennifer Lawrence, though mugging at certain points, nails the majority of her scenes.  She has leaped outside of her comfort zone for this role as an entitled, passive-aggressive housewife, but still earns sympathy.

Jeremy Renner does fine work here too, and Amy Adams deftly switches between Sydney and her con personality Lady Edith Greensly.  Her performance is only mostly convincing, as at times she gives too much away with her face.  But Bradley Cooper nearly steals the entire film in his best performance yet, giving the most developed characterization along with some hilariously heartbreaking scenes.  Keep an eye out for cameos throughout and don’t read any online cast lists ahead of time so you are pleasantly surprised when they pop up.

The homages to the period are rampant and purposeful.  The glamorous costumes are so exuberant and kitschy, they become a welcome joke.  The art direction follows suit, with warm earth tones setting the period while cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Promised Land) uses dueling primary hues and clinical beiges reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever.  Deliberately cliché slo-mo shots and quick zooms exaggerate the drama of the moment and create welcome and appropriate levity.

american-hustleThe usual Russell touch of a Greatest Hits soundtrack and even a noticeably off sound mix create the illusion that the film is a relic of the period.  These choices are all incredibly clever ideas that unfortunately overstay their welcome, as eventually the gag wears thin.  With no other tricks to pull, the homage becomes the very cliché it is parodying.

The intentions for this piece are so admirable it is impossible not to give greater credit to Russell for putting them together.  Unfortunately his Achilles heel still seems to be his unfocused vision for the final product.  However, the disparate elements of this piece are so spectacular that one must admire them individually, from the stellar art design to the clever dialogue.  Take in the nostalgia and enjoy the twists and turns along the way and you are sure to have a groovy time.