At one point in American Hustle the plot underneath all the cons, cinematic panache and plunging necklines become as confused as for the audience as for the characters. It’s at this point where the film’s sloppiness becomes very apparent. Whether this is the sign of a brilliant work by a confident filmmaker or a haphazard jumble by an indulgent one is up for the viewer, but even with its numerous detours, American Hustle entertains through an outstanding cast, strong dialog and a very solid sense of place and style.
This begins even before the film does, as the typical production company logos are displayed in over-saturated 70s stock and a title card tells us that “Some of these things actually happened.” The first five minutes establish immediacy and character by entering into a scene from the middle of the film’s chronology, encapsulating the tensions that result from the flashbacks which soon follow accompanied by complimentary narrators who both disappear for long periods as the film’s focus drifts from one character to another and another and back. At times this may make the film feel long, pushing already established characters and theme of reinvention, but there is usually something enjoyable in the wandering. Whereas less renowned filmmakers would have to strip unnecessary material, David O. Russell has accumulated the type of respect that allows for such variations.
It seems that at some point, every American filmmaker who aspires to greatness tries to make their own version of Goodfellas-esque Scorsese. And Russell is no different. While never reaching the feverish heights of Scorsese’s work, there’s tremendous energy running throughout, often manifested in a camera that doesn’t hold still long enough to become static. Our view drifts from faces down to hands, the specific gestures which sell each performance, closer, to a stance, and back.
Although the ostensible center of the story, both Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper spend much of the time playing behind Amy Adams, whose magnetic performance is only enhance by plunging necklines. Oddly among the central cast it’s Jennifer Lawrence who often feels out of place, both in character and out. Still, along with Jeremy Renner, each character develops an individual motivation and story, which we as viewers are rarely told but can see for ourselves.
Like many films of its type, American Hustle is more about it’s about living in the world it creates than it telling a single, cohesive narrative. For good or bad or, more likely, some degree between the two, the film follows its characters: it makes the best of a mess. No matter how hard they try, these are not people who will ever fulfill their, often exclusionary, ambitions. This isn’t quite the great film it aspires to, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth experiencing.