American Hustle is like taking a shower in a raincoat. Sure you took a shower, but nothing really happened. The latest from David O. Russell, who is turning himself into one of the most formidable writer/directors in the business, is the story of con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are tasked by eager FBI Agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), with helping the Bureau take in four big scores in the late 1970s. In their attempt to take down the “corrupt” politicians, DiMaso’s grand plan places the three of them in a series of escalating and dangerous situations. They set their sights on Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) of New Jersey, and as they cut deals to rebuild Atlantic City their con brings them into the company of high-end mobsters and Congressmen.
There’s a great turn by Robert DeNiro as a mob enforcer in what was perhaps the best scene of the film, and Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s lonely and unstable wife was magnetic in the kind of brilliantly frenetic way that earned her an Oscar for Russell’s last film, Silver Linings Playbook. But something about this film does not sit quite right with me. Sure, the acting is tremendous, and the details are eye-popping! Bale is terrific, especially in the intimate and vulnerable moments; Adams is usually always good, while Cooper and Renner continue to show their considerable capabilities. But there just wasn't much substance. The filmmakers seemed primarily concerned with making sure their main characters were dealt with, not so much the terrible consequences faced by smaller characters who pay the real price of the actions of a power hungry few.
I felt like Louis C.K. was tragically under-used as FBI Agent Stoddard Thorsen, though he seemingly played a major part in the development of the overall theme, and Cooper’s character. For instance, throughout the film his character tries to tell Cooper a story, but Cooper constantly jumps to the wrong conclusion. We ultimately never hear the end of the story, which may, of course, be the point, but in many circumstances when a filmmaker seems like they're trying to say something, they ought to just come out and say something.
The themes of power, love, artistry and reinvention are explored throughout the film, but there are a number of aspects about these themes, and various complications birthed from the narrative, that I felt could have been explored more deeply. Or at the very least, there are moments of suspension that seem too easily sorted out and cleaned up. In a film like this it is hard to have characters flirt with the edge of disaster without there being cataclysmic consequences. Ultimately, again, the film is about reinvention, but the results felt a touch too convenient, if only for the filmmakers and the main characters. It is hard for things to get wildly out of control only to be neatly cleaned up in a matter of 20 minutes, especially when there are terrible consequences for secondary characters yet to be explored.
It sounds like I’m hating on the film, and I’m really not. Again, it’s a very solid film with great ambition. It’s very nice to look at, but it’s not going to unsettle you in any way. For me, the best kinds of films are those that read your soul as you attempt to read them. This film just did not do that for me, even amidst moments of real heartbreak and human tension. It will ultimately be up for all sorts of awards, and I completely understand that, but it’s certainly not the best, most important, or even most entertaining movie I’ve seen this year.