‘American Hustle’: David O. Russell’s Madcap Adventure

There is a wildness to David O. Russell’s American Hustle, almost manic, that fits well with the movie’s strange cast of characters and its based-very-loosely-on-a-true-story plot. In fact, the cast almost sounds like the set-up for a joke: what happens when a chicken piccata-loving New Jersey mayor, a volatile FBI agent, a brassy, incompetent housewife and two con-men, one with a ridiculous comb-over and the other with a fake British accent and even faker banking ties in London, star in a movie together? As it turns out, it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun, but the film is ultimately dragged down by a lack of narrative direction.

While the movie is loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970’s — a title card at the beginning facetiously tells us that “some of this actually happened” — at it’s heart it is about two hearts, those of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Our couple meet at a party and almost immediately fall in love. Their courtship plays like an homage to the Bonnie and Clyde-esque romantic movies of the ’60s and ’70s — the two actually dance down Park Avenue — and Sydney and Irv become partners not only in love, but also in a fraudulent business, promising fake loans to desperate people. But their relationship is dealt a one-two punch as we learn that Irving is married and the two are picked up by the FBI.

In this case, the FBI is an ambitious and delightfully weird agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who offers the couple an out: help catch four bigger criminals and the two are off scot-free. Cue the hijinks.

This is where the film’s narrative begins to break down, but, in essence, the team sets their sights on Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is willing to do anything in order to get Atlantic City’s newly-legalized casinos up and running, including paying off government officials and getting into bed with the mob. While Irving is trepidatious the size of this con, Richie — eager to break free from the life he’s living — demands that the team push forward, at whatever cost. His scenes with his FBI superior, played by Louis C.K., are actually some of the most entertaining in the whole movie.

The film’s other scene-stealer is Jennifer Lawrence who plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving’s unpredictable and reckless wife. Lawrence plays the largely comedic role with such urgency and such presence that even her most ridiculous scenes (for example: wailing “Live or Let Die” as she cleans her Long Island home) are both devastatingly funny and completely believable. Here in Hustle, and in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, it’s clear that there is something about Russell and Lawrence’s collaboration that allows her to tap into a sort of hilarious desperation.

However, Russell’s direction is not all spot-on and, for the most part, the film succeeds despite its lackluster story. American Hustle often places a premium on sparkle over substance and the film succeeds largely due to an amusing cast of characters who make whatever’s happening entertaining to watch. As an Oscar contender, the film largely fails, but as a heist movie it is undeniably entertaining. So while American Hustle may not be 2013’s most important film, it is certainly the one that we’ll still be quoting ten years from now.