When the jury responsible for the Golden Globe nominations decided, in advance of giving American Hustle seven nominations, that the film best suited the ‘Musical or Comedy’ category of the awards, it made a revealing statement about the tone of David O. Russell’s new feature. Presenting great performances from Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper, this caper picture is very rewarding, but ultimately not quite substantial enough to justify its huge awards-season buzz.
Christian Bale is the central character of the film, though not by a wide margin, and plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con man who is forced to work for the FBI by the combustible Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Amy Adams is Sydney, Irving’s lover and partner in crime, who bridges the gap between the two in an expert long game to secure her own wellbeing. The final piece of the puzzle of fraught relationships is provided by Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, Irving’s wife and the mother of his son, unpredictable in the extreme and prone to acts of irrationality. Based loosely on the ‘Abscam’ plots, Irving and Sydney help DiMaso to entrap public officials and nail them for corruption. They do so through the honest and realistic New Jersey Mayor (Jeremy Renner) who is unafraid of a little illicit trading to secure better futures for his citizens.
The interplay between these characters is entertaining and snappy, with well-written dialogue and impressive naturalism. Indeed, the script is very amusing, lending credence to the Globes’ judgement. But the film also has complexities which leave it more in the muddier waters of a dark comedy-drama. At most points it is unclear, especially with retrospect, what character the con artists are inhabiting, and whether they are still conning or not, and the lack of trust flowing between the players leads to good tension when needed. When anomalies arise, and they do frequently, the improvisations are nail-biting to watch, from Rosalyn’s chatter to a chilling cameo by Robert De Niro.
De Niro’s presence harkens back to his work with Russell on Silver Linings Playbook, and the success of that picture does somewhat echo through this film in the form of Cooper and Lawrence’s performances. They are very good performances, to be clear, but the erratic and narcissistic natures of Richie DiMaso and Rosalyn Rosenfeld do remind me of Tiffany and Pat from that film perhaps a tad too much. Still, those parts garnered Oscar nods, so they can’t be too far wrong.
When American Hustle is on song it is a real pleasure. In particular the recurring but not overdone interactions between DiMaso and his boss, played straight by Louis C.K., and the impatient interpretations by Richie of his superior’s ice-fishing stories, are humorous and meta in a way which is extremely impressive. Its lack of cutting edge and bite is an issue, however, and the somewhat saccharine ending does not do anything to help this. Still, when a film looks and especially sounds as good as this one does, with songs punctuating most moments very effectively, the need for a dark tone can be forgotten, and replaced by simple enjoyment.