I love crime films. And not because i’m black ( that would be racist ). I love crime films because criminals are the guys most Americans deep down want to be, sans jail time. Or death. Criminals are more American than soldiers in a way: we are a nation of born of rebels. Of course, most of us also recognize the inherent dangers in crime, which almost always manages to be worked into crime fiction. American Hustle is a film that manages to touch upon both of these aspects, except instead of having a cast of murderous thugs, we have a team of quick-witted conmen.
The premise: Successful con-men Irving Rosenfeld ( Christian Bale ) and Sydney Prosser ( Amy Adams ) get busted by an FBI agent ( Bradley Cooper ) who uses them to entrap a Camden mayor ( Jeremy Renner ) who’s desperate for funds. Without regard to legality. See the trailer here.
The first thing you have to know about this film is that it is an unabashed period piece. Saying it has a 1970’s backdrop is an understatement; Director David O. Russell ( Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter ) inundates most of the film with the most iconic aspects of the 70’s. At one point, several characters comment on the then-arcane microwave as if it was a Star Trek device. The soundtrack follows the Back To The Future ( 1985 ) trope of having only the most famous songs from the decade, including iconic tracks such as Paul McCartney’s Live And Let Die and The Temptations Papa Was A Rolling Stone. All of this places us in the time frame, especially when exploring the greed and excess that many feel began to permeate popular culture during the decade. Speaking of excessive, i imagine many like myself will get an intial laugh at the universally hilarious hairstyles of the cast.
Despite it’s surface ostentatiousness and humor, each character is played straight despite how unsavory they are.
Christian Bale once again does his chameleon schtick by adding a spare tire gut and…going bald i guess ( he’s probably just wearing a bald cap ). Beyond that, he plays a schlub conman with deeply hidden morals. Weirdly enough, the character reminded me of Roy Munson in Kingpin ( 1996 ), another leisure suit Larry, except obviously played a lot straighter. What could have easily been a joke is handled with dignity by Bale as a guy who’s a crook, but one with pride and standards. It almost justifies why two hot women would fight over him. Almost.
Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn manages to be infuriating and hilarious at the same time. To reference another crime film set in the 70’s, the character is reminiscent of Ginger McKenna ( Sharon Stone ) in Casino ( 1995 ), a woman who’s emotional starvation causes her to be a monkey wrench in every carefully laid plan of her husband’s. Like Irving, she could have easily been immensely unlikable, but is instead a joy to watch. Honestly, who could hate Jennifer Lawrence? And that’s not just because she’s the source of “obviously-meant-for-a-trailer” fanservice ( as seen above ). Given the cred of Bale and Lawrence, i wouldn’t be surprised if there are quite a few nominations between them.
I could go into each and every character portrayal but honestly, it would take forever since everybody is solid, especially the few big name cameos. Normally i’m apprehensive about films with several high profile actors, after a few minutes i honestly forgot about who these actors were and accepted them into their roles. It helps that this film’s 70’s aesthetic and affable characters makes it feel like it was already meant to be a film classic.
In terms of pacing, i admit i have mixed feelings , albeit much of it could be attributed to circumstance. I went into this expecting an Ocean’s 11 ( 1960 ) style “heist-style” film with all of the sex and flippancy associated with the sub-genre. And it’s definitely there throughout the film, but it’s mixed in with lots of easygoing character moments as well. For example, Irving’s budding romance with Sydney isn’t handles in an offhand scene as is common in Hollywood. There’s instead a few scenes in the first act that shows him courting her in a fairly realistically paced manner ( bonding over music, helping her pick out clothes ), without too much of an operatic build up. This is a good counterpoint to the rest of the film’s bombast, but i know some people will probably be bored of this when scenes seem to just end without a big climax or just go on longer than desired. And honestly, the length is the only thing i can say felt not as good as other aspects. Because there are a noticeable amount of scenes which only serve to give a bit of characterization ( without even necessarily contributing to an arc ), the film felt like it was overstaying it’s welcome at times. Once i was midway through the film and had an idea of where the protagonist was going, i felt anxious about seeing how it was going to pan out. This made me less interested in the characters and more about the final con. Mind you, i was watching this film from 10:45 to 1am ( with a head cold at that ), so while i was still entertained, i was impatient to see what kind of plan Irving was going to concoct.
Films dealing with guile heroes like con-men tend to put a lot of weight on their climaxes, which are like the criminal versions of summations at the end of detective dramas. One of the most famous is the ending of Trading Places ( 1983 ) with Eddie Murphy and Dan Akyroyd where the two use an elaborate stock market gambit to gain the wealth of two elderly businessmen who screwed them in the first place. This film, which obviously leans more towards interesting characters and atmosphere than outright sensationalism, instead has a fairly plausible ( yet still surprising ) climax. It’s a good twist, but given the length of the film, I personally felt a grander finale was in order. However, as a friend expressed to me and i agreed, this isn’t a movie about the “big score”, it’s a fun, human character piece with great actors. As such, don’t go in expecting an Ocean’s 11-type film like i did.
American Hustle is a film that balances it’s bombast and humanity well, albeit with a bit of lag. See it if you like 70’s aesthetic, any of the lead actors, or lovable anti-heroes. Don’t see it if you want something in the vein of a heist film or want quick and digestible entertainment.