I think I’m missing something when it comes to David O. Russell. Last year when everyone was telling me that Silver Linings Playbook was a brilliant movie, all I saw was a movie that was mostly average with a really good lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence. O’Russell, to me, lacks anything that makes him stand out from the pack. He’s good, but he’s not great and he doesn’t have any recurring styles or ticks that would make him more interesting. Still, with American Hustle he seems to be improving in terms of pure quality and definitely in terms of my enjoyment.
The plot, based very loosely on the FBI Abscam operation from the late 70s, is about Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a conman running a false investment scheme. He meets Sydney (Amy Adams) and immediately both falls for her and involves her in his scheme under the false name of Edith Greensly, a relationship complicated by Irving’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence) with whom he has a son and who he refuses to leave. One of their marks turns out to be an FBI Agent (Bradley Cooper) who offers them an out: If they can help him catch four other conmen, they’ll escape prosecution, and one of their first marks turns out to be Mayor of Atlantic City Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
The incredibly vague trailers seem to be mostly advertising the actors more than anything else, and in that department the movie excels. Christian Bale has pretty much defined by his willingness to alter himself for a performance, and that habit shows up here, with his embarrassing combover and noticeable paunch (neither of which I would be surprised to find out were real) but even aside from that his performance is pretty great, weird and intense in all the right moments.
Amy Adams does a pretty solid job as Bale’s manipulative second, although not quite up to the darker performance she gave in The Master. Jennifer Lawrence is, in the real world, beginning to risk hitting overexposure levels, but she’s still a great actress and I really enjoyed her performance here, and she seems to be having fun with the fact that her character is an awful human being, maybe the worst person in the cast despite being the only one who never does anything illegal.
And Renner gets to remind me why I was excited about him being Hawkeye, as he really emphasizes the subtleties in his character, often quietly or even completely wordlessly. His character, while corrupt, is actually a good person, and not doing any of the corrupt or illegal things for selfish reasons, which is an interesting take on such a character.
The big drag in the acting department is unfortunately a pretty crucial one, Bradley Cooper. Despite what the trailers are telling you, most of the performances in this movie are pretty restrained; even Lawrence only explodes in a couple key moments. But Cooper is loud and over the top in all the wrong moments and his entire performance is too schticky and funny to fit in with the rest of the movie. It’s incredibly jarring to go from scenes watching Bale quietly fall apart to Cooper screaming at people and beating his boss with a phone, and if the intention was to have Cooper’s louder performance compliment the quieter leads, it didn’t work out.
The other big drag is all in how the movie is structured. In retrospect I have a lot of difficulty figuring out where the second act ends and the third act begins and I think that’s because a lot of the scenes in the late second act are kind of on the redundant side, up to and including entire subplots. One extended subplot in the second act in particular feels like it could have been left on the cutting room floor without affecting anything. It’s things like this that make the movie feel overstuffed and overcomplicated in the 3rd act.
But I said I like the movie, and there are reasons besides the acting. The movie is very well written, finding completely distinct voices for all the characters and very human motivations and actions across the board. O’Russell is not a great director, but he’s pretty good and he does pretty well here. And the movie is extremely committed to it’s time period, complete with a time appropriate soundtrack, a couple of scenes that really emphasize the setting (including a, I swear to god, disco scene) and some truly hilarious haircuts on the leads. And while the third act may be kind of overcomplicated, I can’t say that it’s not truly entertaining to watch 4 or 5 different people simultaneously overplaying their hands. It takes some work to make conversation and lying as tense and exciting as action beats, and this movie pulls it off better than a lot of movies I’ve seen this year.
I might not be the biggest fan of David O. Russell at this point, but I still know when a movie is good, and this one is good. It might not be as deep or intelligent as some of the other Oscar season movies I’ve seen thus far, but it’s well made and entertaining, and it’s nice to see some actors putting in good performances. Even if the cast is just a mix and match of the director’s last 2 movies.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s the internet is rapidly becoming the militant arm of Jennifer Lawrence’s press agent.
-Very enjoyable to watch
-Bad performance from Bradley Cooper
-Overcomplicated third act
-A little overstuffed