Shorter than The Wolf of Wall Street by 41 minutes, David O. Russell’s American Hustle felt longer and more ridiculous by a good stretch. Loosely based on the Abscam bribery stings of the late 1970s, Russell introduces four purportedly colorful characters: portly, combed-over con man Christian Bale; his sexy mistress and partner in crime Amy Adams; his loony wife Jennifer Lawrence; and a hyper aggressive, curly headed FBI agent Bradley Cooper. Cooper nails Bale and Adams, forces them to entrap others (including Jeremy Renner, as a New Jersey mayor desperate for development funds), a love triangle ensues, and after countless zooms, swift pans and other frenetic camera shots utilized primarily to divert our attention from the banal, repetitive script, we reach a tacked on and unconvincing resolution.
The closest thing to a character is Bale, and his performance is the only reason to see the picture. Unfortunately, he plays a man desperately juggling knives, and it feels as if he’s doing just that masking this thin script. Lawrence plays a decent wacky shrew, and the soundtrack has a few fun numbers from the 70s (I’ve always been a sucker for Steely Dan’s Dirty Work). That’s all of the good.
The bad is really bad, starting first with the preposterous characters played by Adams and Cooper. Unlike with Bale, Russell (who co-wrote) doesn’t bother to give us any sense of where these two came from. She is an impossibly sensuous cypher, in a 70s Enjoli perfume commercial sort of way. Cooper is so manic it suggests severe chemical imbalance, as if his character in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook got a job in law enforcement. While these two concoctions flirt, and even disco dance (because this is the 70s), the aimless story plods along.
There are other problems. Who could keep a mere fraudster imprisoned for three days without access to a lawyer just to soften her up? Why would you cast Louis C.K. in a supporting role when he’s already demonstrated in one of his sitcom episodes the silliness of having stand-up comics dramatically act? How can a script this talky lack one memorable exchange? Where is this fucking film going and will it never end? Why is Lawrence singing “Live and Let Die” to the camera as she dusts? Does Russell really think he can get by on stealing that Paul Thomas Anderson trick and his camera work, kitschy 70s fashion and hairdos, a few well chosen tunes and the same cast from his last two films?
The answer to the last question is a 93% rating on rottentomatoes and 10 Oscar nominations. Only two are deserved: Bale and Hair.