I hardly know where to begin with this film. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and analyzing my reaction to it, and I’m not sure I’m actually ready to write my review of it, but if I don’t do it soon then it’ll probably never get done. It’s not that I don’t like this film, it’s pretty decent, but it’s also a huge disappointment for me. To say I had unreasonably high expectations for this movie would be an understatement; Silver Linings Playbook was my absolute favorite film of 2012 (and still is) and I liked The Fighter well enough. This movie combined the casts from both of those films and put them in one of my favorite eras, the 1970s, and made them con men. American Hustle promised a bunch of wacky fun and insanity, seventies style, and I could not have been more excited.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser aka Lady Edith Greensly (Amy Adams) are con men (con people?) selling forged or stolen art and giving out bad loans. After doing quite well for themselves, Sydney gets busted by FBI Agent Ritchie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and in order to get out of trouble, Rosenfeld and Sydney are forced to go along with DiMaso’s crazy plan of conning cons to bring them down. He eyes are bigger than his stomach however, and he drags the pair into increasingly dire situations. The end game (short of putting absolutely everyone in jail) is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the crooked mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who is trying to rebuild Atlantic City. Complicating matters is Rosenfeld’s insane wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who is suffering from depression and knows just enough to be a problem, and mentally and emotionally unstable enough to give it up.
In the midst of all this plotting, you have a lot of emotional involvement between the characters. They are all caught in a love quadrangle of sorts, perhaps it would be better described as a chain. Rosenfeld and Prosser were originally together, but after the FBI catches Prosser and she rots in an interrogation room for three days with almost no contact, her faith in Rosenfeld fades and she starts maybe going for DiMaso. This could just be to get back at Rosenfeld, however. Rosenfeld has Rosalyn, whom he can’t leave because he’s adopted her son and the son has no one else to take care of him. Rosalyn eventually falls for a man in the mafia (Jack Huston) which causes problems for everyone, but eventually works out for the best in a strange way.
That’s quite a bit to keep track of, and I think even objectively that this is a problem with the film. It’s a similar situation to the one we saw in Lincoln last year where they showed a bunch of stuff about Lincoln’s personal life with his wife and son that really didn’t need to be there. Now, it’s not the same problem we have here: I don’t think Russell should have taken the personal stuff completely out because it was interesting, but he should have found a way to balance it better. The two sides of the story get way too muddled together and it becomes hard to keep track of. To offer a comparison to another film, I have a similar problem with Hustle that I have with The Hobbit films and that is that the main character is drowned out through numerous subplots. I feel like Rosenfeld is supposed to be a main character here, but with all the other characters stuffed in here, the focus isn’t really on him for a great part of the film, which left me a bit confused.
Another thing that fell short for me was the humor. This is more personal and different people will react differently, but I for one can’t believe this film is billed as a comedy. I laughed maybe three times during the whole picture, and most of it wasn’t jokes that fell flat but stuff that just wasn’t funny because it was dramatic. The thing with the microwave and Jennifer Lawrence’s character always burning the house down was just about the only thing that worked for me in the humor department here. I did think that was completely hilarious, and it serves as a meaningful symbol of the relationship between Rosenfeld and Polito which I really enjoyed. I think I’m in the minority on this one, but the ice fishing story was done to death. It was funny the first couple times but after a while I was just wondering why the hell Di Maso was stuck on this. Having this escalate into Di Maso beating up his boss (Louis CK) and almost killing him, then making fun of him afterwards, was in poor taste in my opinion and I didn’t find it funny at all.
There is a great cast here, and I had great expectations for them as well. Bale’s performance in particular is pretty great. I think he was able to humanize his character more than anyone else in this film. Even though he didn’t go about it in a legal way, and he made his fair share of mistakes, you can see that he wants to do the right thing, despite all of that talk about surviving and coming out on top. Bale was able to make Rosenfeld more sympathetic by the end of the film than I could have thought possible when it started. I don’t really have any complaints about Amy Adams or Bradley Cooper, they both did a fine job, but I wasn’t blown out of the water by either of their performances. Jennifer Lawrence I did enjoy watching, but I don’t think Rosalyn should have had as big a part in the story as she did. She went a long way towards making the film funnier, but it feels like the film is leaning on Lawrence’s star power and charisma when it should be trusting its lead players, who have more than enough star power and charisma in their own rights. To contradict myself a bit, I felt like Jeremy Renner’s part should have been a bit bigger, because his relationship with Rosenfeld was really pivotal to that character reevaluating his choices and life, besides being pretty darn heartbreaking towards the end.
I will agree that the look of the film is impeccable. Russell does capture the look and feel of the seventies pretty well, and I can’t make any reasonable complaints there (though I was really hoping for a Zeppelin song because he used them in his previous two movies that were not set in the seventies, and in the first trailers for this one, but no dice). You have the sequins and the disco and the curlers and sideburns, and though that’s definitely not enough to make the movie, it does help. The music choices are all spot on and the seventies are recreated pretty well.
It’s possible that I would look back on this film in later years and love it, but right now I’m so disappointed in it that I have a hard time seeing many good things in it. It might be a bit unfair, but it just proves how much I love the previous work of all involved that I’m going hard on this one. I’ll probably get over it its problems because it’s not a terrible film or anything, but it’s not happening anytime soon I can tell you. I expected a lot out of this one, some of it probably unfairly, and unfortunately it didn’t completely deliver.
“I told you not to put metal in the science oven, what did you do that for?”
Long story short: 2.5/4 stars
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