American Hustle Review
by Daniel Rester
Many critics have been comparing David O. Russell’s latest film, American Hustle, to the Martin Scorsese classic Goodfellas (1990). While Hustle isn’t quite on the masterful level of that film on a whole, some of the comparisons are justified as the film does have a Scorsese feel to it at moments. And it earns those moments with a smile on its face. Russell’s crime epic does have its share of flaws, but damn it’s good, providing a certain zest that is unlike anything seen in another film this year.
Hustle opens with a scene involving the gaudiness of certain hairdos of the 1970s, with Russell already winking at the audience. And from there it goes, diving into a story with great humor and attention to detail. See, Russell isn’t just interested in the weight of money and killings in his crime story, but rather the smaller, more playful moments with the characters and settings. His overall style makes Hustle a bit unusual for a crime epic, turning it into more of a strange character study with both laughs and an underlying bit of melancholy. That may turn some people off, but it also gives the film a unique quality and plenty of colorful characters.
One of those characters: Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), an overweight con man with heart issues, and also the main protagonist of the story. Rosenfeld is married to a young and ignorant woman named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), but he really loves his con partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). However, he won’t leave Rosalyn for Sydney because he is committed to taking care of Rosalyn’s child.
Irving’s situation gets stickier when the FBI gets involved with him and Sydney’s work. They are soon forced to help an agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a man who wants to take down politicians and mafia members by bribing them. The first target is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a mayor from New Jersey who is trying to provide more opportunities for his city.
Russell’s film, which is co-written by Eric Warren Singer, is loosely based on real events. The actual events involved con artist Melvin Weinberg (who Irving is based on) and the FBI’s Abscam operation of the 1970s and 1980s. However, Hustle isn’t a tell-all docudrama, and it really just uses such events for Russell to run with.
Though Singer and Russell’s script may not entirely lay in truth, it is still a knockout. The main weakness of the film is that the story lacks a certain sense of danger and emotional resonance by its finish, making it hard to feel much when it comes to the narrative. But other than that the writing is outstanding. The screenplay is full of flavorful dialogue (including a running gag about an ice fishing story), including a lot of one-on-one arguments that pop out. It also contains telling moments about its time period and characters, and features a juggling act of using multiple narrators. The ambition and trickiness of the writing has its moments of messiness, but for the most part it pays off terrifically.
Russell has a fine grip on things behind the cameras as well, directing Hustle in a manner so that it has energy to spare; the steam never runs out even past the two-hour mark. Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren deliver plenty of memorable and beautiful images as well, and yes, they use Scorsese-like pans and tracking at times. Many of the shots flow with the environments so well, making smaller things seem richer (better) than they fully need to. This is even down to things like steam on a street during the night and how characters move through it; or the movement of racks inside of a laundry mat, with a man standing between them with a look of sadness; or the slow following of characters through a hotel hallway. Russell and Sandgren make such little things count.
The editing by Jay Cassidy, Alan Baumgarten, and Crispin Struthers also lends a hand to the images, offering up a fine mix of cuts between the characters while never letting things get tangled. Even better is the production design by Judy Becker and costume design by Michael Wilkinson; both should get some serious awards consideration. Finally, Danny Elfman’s music choices are excellent, with songs by bands such as America and Electric Light Orchestra adding to the feel.
But when all is said and done, this film really belongs to the cast. Bale is simply magnetic as Rosenfeld, giving one of the best performances of his career. The actor gained much weight for the part, and he even perfects a slight slouch for the character. He also knows how to add the perfect amounts of stubbornness, jealousy, brilliance, and sadness to the performance, giving plenty of shades to Rosenfeld. In truth, Bale reaches a level here that his co-stars never quite match.
The rest of the acting is superb as well, though a few parts seem a little miscast when it comes to the supporting players. Adams is unbelievably sexy as Prosser, with the camera and costumes drawing a lot of attention to her. But she also matches the looks with her chops, adding yet another dynamic performance to her resume of great work. Cooper is fun to watch, too, with DiMaso being a slightly wacky and angry FBI agent; the actor continues to impress as he breaks further into new performance territory. Lawrence and Renner are entertaining in their parts, though Lawrence is too over-the-top at times and Renner seems a tad out of place. Still, they kick into high gear at times and keep you with them. There are also a few surprise cameos that should please a lot of filmgoers.
Russell’s Hustle (say that five times fast) is being slightly overhyped and isn’t on a level with the crime classic Goodfellas. The story and focus just lack a certain shape and strength at times, weakening the film. However, there is so much great in Hustle that it is still able to rise up and be one of the better films of the year. It’s a must-see because of its many fine aspects, but just don’t expect a masterpiece.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-)
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content, and brief violence).
Runtime: 2 hours and 18 minutes.