Friday, December 20, 2013

American Hustle

AMERICAN HUSTLE: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, directed by David O. Russell (138 min.)

American Hustle begins not with the bang you would expect, but with a long, drawn-out whimper.  It spends the first hour stuck in the murky waters of exposition, character development, and plot details, none of which are very interesting.  Which is quite a conundrum, because these are brilliant performances and rich characters from top to bottom.  Except they are stuck in a humdrum opening act that almost kills everything.  Luckily, the film picks up some steam after an important cameo, but aspects of American Hustle keep it from being as great as it should be, or at least as good as I expected.

Steeped in the tacky world of the late seventies, the film focuses on a group of low-rent grifters and con men who get caught up in a bigger scam that never feels as big as it should.  Christian Bale stars as Irving Rosenfeld, a pudgy, quiet confidence man with one of the most elaborate combovers of all time.  Irving runs a chain of dry cleaners and spends the rest of his time swindling people out of five thousand dollars a pop with the promise of a $50,000 loan in return.  Early on, Irving meets a spunky young working girl named Sydney (Amy Adams, who is finally allowed to show off her sexy side), and the two fall in love.  She becomes a partner with Irving, fashioning herself as a British banking expert to strengthen the con.  But there is one small issue in this fairy tale romance: Irving is married to Rosalyn, a ditzy loudmouthed blond played by Jennifer Lawrence.  Lawrence is the life of the film, her role is the most showy, and she hits all the notes as the outsider who manages to keep things mucked up along the way.

Things are rolling along until Irving and Sydney are busted by Richie DiMaso, an arrogant FBI Agent played by Bradley Cooper with a ridiculously accurate perm.  Richie has larger plans aside from busting these two bottom of the barrel cons.  His plan involves framing politicians into taking money from a fake Sheik, and the focus of his sting is one Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).  Polito is a good man, a family man, but he is a powerbroker in New Jersey and is a perfect pawn in a scam involving the rebuilding of Atlantic City.  The entire con is murky, and the motivations unclear for a long time.  That is, until the Miami Mob scene is brought into focus and the stakes become much more threatening to our players.

The con game in American Hustle should be more vibrant, more dangerous, more interesting overall.  There aren't the sort of double crosses and back-channel dealings one would expect from a film with this title.  Everything is played out just as you would expect.  Once the Miami Mafiosos come into play, the film picks up steam.  This also happens to be about the time Lawrence's character gets more to do.  Unfortunately it takes about an hour for the plot to get revved up.  The early scenes are painfully slow and lifeless.  Bale is aces as Irving, but his whispy voice and subdued, sensitive persona can't carry these early scenes.  Somehow the relationship between Bale and Adams works well as the focal point of the film despite the fact the story treads water for so long.  Cooper adds some pent up angst to the proceedings, and is better than just about anyone at playing the jerk.  The screenplay just needed more life.

I wanted, or at least expected, American Hustle to be one of the best films of the year.  Unfortunately, it doesn't deliver consistently enough to be anything more than a Scorsese imitation.  David O. Russell is a fine director, and his lat two films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) have been the best of his scattered career.  This time around, Russell is saddled with a script by Eric Singer (which he also co-wrote) that is too flat and uninspired in the early sections.  American Hustle isn't necessarily a bad film, but it isn't anything great.