Published on December 27th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant0
American Hustle kind-of-sort-of tells the true story of the FBI ABSCAM sting that occurred in the late 70s, where the FBI contracted a conman to entrap corrupt public officials. It’s a hell of an entertaining movie, and while it’s not perfect, it makes a few key moves that elevate it beyond the Goodfellas wannabe that it could have been.
Director David O. Russell has long been known as a bit of a diva, having had famous dust ups with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin. But American Hustle brings together the principles from the casts of his last few movies, The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) and Silver Linings Playbook (Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper). Perhaps he’s found some actors that he can play nice with? Either way, in American Hustle, Bale and Adams are firing on all thrusters. Both are actors that I’m lukewarm on. Each have handed in some amazing performances (especially Bale), however, both of them have also made movies that left me cold. Even with a horrible comb over, Bale does more than just ‘let the wig do the work’ here — he creates a character that may be a scumbag, but he’s believable and empathetic. Adams isn’t far behind him, and Jennifer Lawrence steals a few scenes. Bradley Cooper has a few strong scenes (especially the off-the-cuff moment where he’s making fun of Louis CK’s character), but I’m still not convinced he’s a great actor. That said, a lot of the power of this movie is in the acting, which says a lot for Russell, considering how many actors he’s had issues with in the past.
The other thing the movie does really well is focus on the characters instead of just pushing them through the plot like so many other films do. I’ve seen characters like Jennifer Lawrence’s half-crazy wife reduced to caricatures and one-dimensional plot obstacles in other films, but just by focusing on her feelings and motivations in a few key moments, Russell and Lawrence bring the character off the page and make us care about her. Even when she’s a manipulative pain in the ass, we can still fathom why Bale’s character treats her with kid gloves (and this also serves to paint more about his character, making him that much more of an honorable rogue). All this character work pushes the run time way past the two-hour mark, but I think that for the most part, the movie feels well paced. These little moments are important, so the extra run time is more warranted.
American Hustle is one of the best movies I saw this year, and even if he can be a wanker, Russell is a director that I’ve enjoyed since Spanking the Monkey showed us his wonderfully skewed sensibilities. As much as this movie wants to be Goodfellas, it’s not — it doesn’t quite have the electricity that Scorsese and Co. injected into that story (even with a DeNiro cameo). However, in a cinematic era where few theatre goers will slap down their cash for a movie unless it destroy skyscrapers and explodes mountains in eye popping, wallet-gouging 3D, it’s great to see a talented director bringing nuanced movies with good storytelling and multi-dimensional characters to the multiplex.