Sunday, January 5, 2014

American Hustle (Theatrical review)

American Hustle (2014)
Comedy, Crime, Drama, 138 minutes
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner

I had been looking forward to seeing American Hustle since it was announced. I almost saw it on release day, but I have an aversion to watching movies with people who are more concerned with noisily eating their weight in popcorn than watching what is on the screen. Yesterday's viewing was still pretty packed, but I am glad I didn't wait any longer. The movie is a lot of fun.

There's something a little jarring about David O. Russell's movies. I think it's the amount of conflict present between his characters. Have you ever been to a party or a gathering where people are all talking at once? It can be chaotic. There might be little gems of information hidden in the cacophony, but it's easy to miss. If you have seen The Fighter, you'll know that Russell's characters were often at each others throats. In Silver Linings Playbook, the central romance wasn't fully realized until the participants had survived numerous arguments. American Hustle feels similar in many ways to both those movies, although the canvas is broader and more colorful.

The movie opens with the statement, "Some of this actually happened." Well, the 1970s certainly happened, but I doubt that many people resembled the main characters in this story. The opening scene sets the tone by showing Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) fixing his hair. This is an elaborate process involving glue and a comb-over. IMDB states that Bale gained more than 40 pounds to play the role, and herniated two discs while perfecting his slouching posture. It's quite a transformation. That opening scene is a clear statement that American Hustle is not going to be a serious drama, and the movie rarely deviates from that initial statement of intent.

Rosenfeld is an interesting character. He spends most of his time conning people out of their money, promising loans for those who can make a down payment of $5,000. He meets Sydney Prosser (Adams) at a party and the two form a partnership and are attracted to each other. The plot becomes more complicated when an intended mark turns out to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). To avoid going to jail, Rosenfeld and Prosser agree to help DiMaso convict four corrupt officials, starting with Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner).

What follows is a complete mess. Does Rosenfeld really love Prosser? Will he ever leave his wife Rosalyn (Lawrence)? Is Prosser in love with Rosenfeld, DiMaso, both, or neither? The story contains a delightful cameo from another Russell regular, a science oven, a fake sheikh, great music from the 70s, fantastic performances from the main cast, twists, humor, intrigue, and plenty of laughs. Is it coherent? Not completely on the first viewing. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely.

Jennifer Lawrence isn't in many scenes, but she's fascinating every time she appears. Bale and Adams dominate most of the story, and are ably supported by Bradley Cooper, who has become a much better actor than I once imagined. It's interesting to see these Russell favorites make fun of themselves. Lawrence is borderline crazy, Bale almost unrecognizable, Adams more manipulative than most of her former characters, and Cooper willing to act like a fool. Is this the sort of chemistry that develops when directors continually use actors that they have worked with in the past? I love seeing directors such as Lynch, the Coens, Darabont and Tarantino going back to the same actors repeatedly. I think it adds something to the performances.

Like a Tarantino movie, American Hustle is more about style and the journey than the actual plot. It's simply fun to watch these characters interact. Don't expect a clever scam along the lines of The Sting. Just enjoy the wild ride. I already can't wait to see it again, despite its imperfections. I have a feeling that I will end up loving the movie once I have allowed it to sink in and with repeat viewings. The same was true for Silver Linings Playbook and Jason Reitman's Young Adult.

If you're perceptive and still reading, you might have noticed that I haven't talked much about the plot. This is one you need to experience without knowing too much going in. If you're a fan a Russell, or the main actors, you'll come away with a smile on your face. If you're not, this movie might just convert you. 

For now, the overall score is 4/5.

Return to index of every review on the site.


  1. Nice review Steve. Felt to me like it was a movie directed by Scorsese, but a very good one at that.

    1. Thanks Dan. Yes, it did have that Scorsese feel. The in-depth look at criminals and the voice-overs.

  2. Great review, Steve! Can't wait to see this one :) It opens Jan 17th here!

    1. I'm sure you will like it, Fernando. I can't wait to see it on Blu-ray. Labor Day is out in three weeks here. Can't have too much Jason Reitman.

  3. Definitely an actor's film, with some great moments and terrific performances within an uneven story backed by a killer 70's soundtrack.