By Bob Garver
“American Hustle” is a movie about con artists, but it might as well be a movie about magicians or dreams. A movie about magicians (like “Now You See Me”) is going to wait until the last minute to clue you in on what the big trick really was. A movie about dreams (like “Inception”) is going to wait until the last minute to clue you in on what was really a dream. And a movie about con artists like “American Hustle” is going to wait until the last minute to clue you in on which characters are really conning the others. There’s little point in getting invested in the story up to that point because you know it’s going to get turned on its head by some twist at the end.
This is not to say that it isn’t worth becoming invested in other elements of the film like individual scenes or the performances. The film is directed by David O. Russell (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) and he has assembled an all-star cast for this outing. Four of the main actors (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) received Academy Award nominations for previous Russell films, two of whom (Bale and Lawrence) won. Keep in mind, that’s just among the top-billed actors.
The story follows professional con artist or “hustler” Irving Rosenfeld (Bale). He’s so charismatic that he has his partner Sydney (Adams) and wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) fighting over him even though he’s doughy and puts a lot of effort into a hairpiece/comb-over combo that isn’t fooling anybody. Sydney gets busted by an FBI agent named Richie (Cooper) who agrees to release her if she and Irving use their skills to catch other criminals. They set out to trap a crooked New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) and this leads to a larger plan to take down corrupt politicians and even high-value Mafia targets. You don’t need to worry so much about who’s bribing who as long as you’re thinking about who’s conning who. I suppose the winner is the ultimate hustler.
Again, the appeal of the movie doesn’t lie in the plot, it lies in the characters, especially the women. Sydney is such a skilled liar that the people who come closest to understanding her are the people who know that they will never understand her. But I think it’s Rosalyn that people will most remember from this film. She’s completely crazy (don’t trust her around anything flammable) and this makes her the least likely to be lying because she’s too crazy to get away with the lie. She reminds me of a Jack Sparrow quote from the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “…a dishonest [person] you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It’s the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they’re going to do something incredibly… stupid.”
The characters and performances in “American Hustle” are a lot of fun and it’s a shame that they aren’t part of a better movie. As it is, the film gets so bogged down in the complicated bribery storyline that it distracts from the intriguing character interactions that should be the focus. And then of course there’s that nagging “don’t trust anybody” device that makes all the action and characters seem so distant. It’s one thing for a story to make us wonder what twists lie ahead. It’s another thing for a film like “American Hustle” to make it obvious that a twist is coming at the last minute.
Two Stars out of Five.
“American Hustle” is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief language. Its running time is 138 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.