There are two well-established traits to each movie in David O. Russell's post I Heart Huckabees filmography: he places heavy emphasis on populating his films with memorable characters (which, to be fair, could be a description of his early films as well), and this focus on character tends to come at the expense of strong plotting (which wasn't a problem with his early films). You can see it in both The Fighter, which is at its core the same sort of inspirational sports movie in the vein of Remember the Titans or The Natural that we've seen a million times, and Silver Linings Playbook, which boasts a nearly insufferable storybook ending that nearly undoes the strong work done earlier in the film. He works within these established genres and tropes, fills them with magnetic characters, the sort of characters we aren't seeing in other iterations of the formula, and then has those magnetic characters fall into the same lockstep we've seen before. With American Hustle, Russell sets his sights on the long con film, a genre that has great potential for playing to his strengths. Coming along for the ride is a cast full of Russell veterans: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence of Silver Linings Playbook join Christian Bale and Amy Adams of The Fighter and Russell newcomer Jeremy Renner to populate this late 70's period piece.
Bale and Adams are our leads, playing con artists and lovers Irving and Sydney, who make a quiet and relatively modest living ripping off low end desperate types in bank loan scams, while trading in black market paintings on the side. Their lives are thrown out of balance when one of their bank scam marks turns out to be a hotheaded FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Cooper), and get roped into working with the feds to catch crooks and embezzlers. Their primary target is Camden, NJ mayor Carmine Polito (Renner), who isn't afraid to use his political connections to do what it takes and help his city and state thrive. Adding to the mayhem is Irving's wife Rosalyn (Lawrence), a loose cannon who plays by her own rules and doesn't care much for authority or artifice, a dangerous element for the wife of a career criminal. As is often the case in long con films, the interpersonal relationships get more complicated as the complexity magnifies, and as the mafia and other politicians get swept up in their wake (the central con is a fictionalization of the real life Abscam sting from the late 70's and early 80's), the true intrigue comes from discovering who is playing who when everything shakes out.
As has become customary, Bale goes through a physical transformation to embody Irving Rosenfeld, sporting a prodigious gut and a thorough, complicated comb-over. He cons to survive, as is often the case with most grifters, dating back to when he was a child, casually breaking storefronts to help out his struggling father's window business. Irving is caught between his relationship with Sydney and his home life, where he seems to genuinely care for his adopted song and tolerate his brusque wife. Bale fills his character with a natural charm and confidence that makes you believe both Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence could fall for him. Adams is a bit more of a question mark; Sydney's past is shrouded in mystery, but her commitment to Irving and the con lifestyle is absolute. An additional layer of artifice comes from the different name and British accent she affects as part of her cover for the cons. Bale and Adams make for an electric couple on screen; their affair is volatile and passionate, the one chink in the armor of Irving's controlled and measured life. What's interesting about these characters, and Irving specifically, is how uninterested they are in hitting it big. Their little bank scheme and the painting trade is more than enough to keep them satisfied. They're not Ocean's 11 level crooks, which is refreshing. Irving plays along with the feds because he has to in order to avoid jail time. But he doesn't want the risk. It's not worth it to him.
Cooper plays Richie almost like a heightened version of Pat from Silver Linings Playbook (an impressive feat considering Pat's bipolar tendencies), channeling a manic energy into his work in an attempt to get ahead at the FBI. He clearly has issues at home; the few scenes of his personal life are a provocative peek behind his curtain of bravado. Richie wants to make some high-profile busts, and he wants everyone to know it was his idea and his plan to do so. Most notably, Richie is the only person who's working for purely selfish reasons; he's not in to survive, but to get ahead. This puts him in immediate conflict with Irving's risk-aversion, as well as offering a combustible element for Sydney to exploit sexually. Renner's Polito is based on a real person (the film opens with a pithy title card: "Some of this actually happened"), and he does well enough inhabiting a family man and politician who really just wants the best for his constituents. His corruption (bordering on entrapment) comes from a foundation of pragmatism, using the tricks of the trade not to get ahead, but to get the people what he thinks they need to survive and thrive. Rounding out the principals, Lawrence imbues Rosalyn Rosenfeld with the perfect energy to play off Bale and Adams, presenting a sort of gruff and no-nonsense uninhibited veneer that belies a cagey intelligence. She projects as flighty but hides the true control she knows she has over her situation, especially once she hooks up with a lower level mobster (Jack Huston).
All the actors, as well as some wonderful other supporting roles from the likes of Louis C.K., Michael Pena and a cameo I will not go into detail about, are excellent in their roles, truly inhabiting the dress and style of the late 70's. Of particular note are Bale, who doesn't let his physical characteristics define him or override the traits he brings to the film. What really impresses is his eyes; this is often a good tool in con films where characters often find themselves playing different roles to different people in the same room. Indeed, the eye work from the entire cast is wonderful, from the death stares exchanged by Adams and Lawrence whenever they are anywhere near each other, to Cooper's psychotic, wild eyes. It's well established that Russell can bring the best out of his actors and actresses, even when they expand their horizons and play off type. The ensemble is strong and up to the task.
American Hustle is likely David O. Russell's funniest script in a while, possible even his jokiest since Flirting With Disaster, his sublime farce from 1996. The laughs come fast and often, many of them coming from Lawrence, who in another astoundingly good performance has a future in comedy assured. But at its core, the film is a drama, and it's these dramatic moments that Russell once again finds himself stumbling. There are moments, quite a few, where the script seems to betray the characters; these are the weepiest and most emotional con artists I think I've ever seen on film. Adams gets the worst of it, rattling off these emotional, teary speeches wearing hair curlers, and you can almost see where the Oscar reel begins and ends. The tone seems to pinball from broad, farcical comedy, to a more subdued humor to drama to a riff on the 70's era work of Scorsese and Coppola, aping both the era and the directorial style. I don't think it's automatically a bad thing to mix tones within a film. It happens all the time (the Coens are excellent at it, for example). What American Hustle lacks is the ligature necessary to unite its disparate themes into a cohesive whole.
The experience of American Hustle is akin to an uneven episode of Saturday Night Live. Moments of near sublime entertainment and comedy abound (I assure you that you will have a new name for your microwave after seeing this film), but are followed by scenes of melodrama that just don't work. We're lucky, because there's more good than bad ("bland" might be a better choice of word; the film is never bad), and the movie as a whole is quite an entertaining experience. But it's also frustrating, since it could have and should have been better, making this the third straight time David O. Russell hasn't been able to pull everything together into a satisfying whole. A recommendation, but a cautious one.