Director David O. Russell has a knack for bringing out the very best in his actors, whether it’s Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in “The Fighter,” or Jennifer Lawrence in last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” – all of whom won Academy Awards for their performances. With his latest, “American Hustle,” Russell assembles a cast of veterans (Bale, Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper) and newcomers (Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K.) to his work, who may not achieve similar Oscar glory come February, but are clearly having a ball sinking their teeth into a smorgasbord of outrageous characters.
Without getting too caught up in the nitty-gritty, sometimes convoluted details, the basic premise of “American Hustle” follows con man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale, almost unrecognizable) and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Adams, sporting an intentionally lousy British accent) as they’re caught red-handed in a scam, and are forced to work for FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper, in what may well be his finest performance yet). As allegiances become fuzzy and romances go south, this twisted trio attempts to take down the affable but corrupt mayor Carmine Polito (Renner, in a thankless role) and eventually get entangled with the Jersey mafia (seriously, just wait for the cameo).
There’s plenty of shouting (courtesy of natural scene-stealer Lawrence as bored housewife Rosalyn Rosenfeld) and a soundtrack chock full of inspired ‘70s music cues (honestly, you’ll never think of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” the same again). And over the course of more than two hours brimming with out-of-date fashions and primped-up hairdos, you’ll rarely get bored. But like the science oven taking the nutrition out of all their food, the film feels empty when all is said and done, with very little to savor when the lights come up and you leave the theater.
No fault whatsoever to the talented A-list cast, who – aside from Renner – all construct fine-tuned, nuanced performances from the material they’re given. Bale especially undergoes a transformation that runs deeper than physical appearance, but unfortunately, his character is frequently upstaged by far showier roles. Although she’s a mere supporting player, the film belongs to Lawrence, who hams it up without ever slipping into caricature and manages to make us sympathize with what could have easily been throwaway comic relief.
Instead, the main problem seems to lie in the screenplay (penned by Russell and Eric Singer), which is entertaining but sloppy, and lacks any substance or depth. Not to say every film needs some grand, overarching meaning or takeaway – after all, can’t we just go along for the ride? But it’s difficult to go on that journey when the audience feels so inexplicably detached from these characters, no matter how strong the performances.
Russell has proven himself to be one of the more talented popular directors working in Hollywood today, but this somehow feels like a lesser effort. While it checks off all the boxes on one’s list of expectations, “American Hustle” never manages to exceed any of them. One has to wonder what the end result could have been, had Russell taken a little more time to fine-tune and tinker with the script, rather than rushing to shoot and edit in order to make a year-end awards deadline.
The film will probably fare pretty handsomely at the Golden Globes. It’s already picked up seven nominations, and with less competition due to its inclusion in the “comedy/musical” categories, stands to pick up a few accolades (most likely for Lawrence). And while it’ll surely pick up scores of Oscar nominations as well, it’s hard to imagine this winning anything more than hair/makeup or costume honors. The performances are “better” than many that we’ve seen this year, but nowhere near the “best.” Similarly, the film is very “good” without ever being “great.” Although critics have thrown around comparisons to “Goodfellas” and “Casino” when writing about “American Hustle,” it’s fairly safe to say that it won’t stand the test of time quite like those have and will.
“American Hustle” opened nationwide Friday, Dec. 20.