AMERICAN HUSTLE Review: Hustle and Slow
When VHS took off in the 1980s and the local mom-and-pop video rental store opened our account (read: gave us our own index card to track our rentals), I consumed catalogue titles at a blistering pace. Many I had never seen but had only heard/read about. Others made annual-ish airings on network television. Much of what I rented was the former, but as soon as it appeared on the shelf, a revisit of the latter, in the form of George Roy Hill‘s The Sting,was mandatory (and eventually repetitive).
The 1973 film, which stars Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and others, tells the tale of a big con orchestrated by players with varying degrees of experience trying to nab a big mark. The film is a period piece with great period-appropriate music, and it is loaded with great performances. It also went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Forty years later (almost to the day), David O. Russell gives us American Hustle, a film reminiscent of The Sting in many ways. It’s a period piece with great music; it’s about a big con involving players of varying skills; it’s a film full of great performances. Where the two differ, though, is that The Sting knows what it is and it delivers what it knows, while Hustle forgets what it’s supposed to be and tries to deliver other things with it.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist by night, specializing in small investment scams and art forgeries. By day, Irving is a dry cleaning franchise owner, a husband to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and the adopted father of Rosalyn’s young son from a previous relationship. Rosalyn is a little unhinged, but Irving remains married to her for the sake of the boy. Irving’s life seems to take a turn for the better when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a fellow con and the woman who could be his soulmate.
They work together to grow their con game and fall for each other in the process, but that winning streak comes to an abrupt end when they are busted by overeager FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). With Sydney facing jail time, Irving cuts a deal to help Richie catch bigger criminal fish. Through various circumstances, the con winds up targeting Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, NJ. It also involves a fake sheik and ultimately includes the mafia, inviting the involvement of mob boss Meyer Lansky’s #2 man, Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro). As the setup grows and grows out of control, more politicians are drawn in.
Meanwhile, Sydney draws Irving’s jealousy by becoming romantically engaged with Richie (who thinks she’s actually a Brit, Lady Edith, yet another scam within a scam); and Rosalyn, who has no idea about the bigger picture, wants so badly to be a part of the high-profile scene that she endears herself – against Irving’s better judgment – to Carmine and his wife Dolly (Elisabeth Rohm). She eventually falls for mobster Pete Musane (Jack Huston) and almost jeopardizes the entire operation by saying the wrong things to the wrong people at the worst times.
It isn’t easy orchestrating a con like ABSCAM, which ran for years and on which American Hustle is based, so it certainly can’t be easy trying to capture even the key points of that con in only two-ish hours, while making it coherent and compelling in the process. Even with its flashy ties to politicians and mobsters, the story is so terribly procedural. That’s not to say making it interesting cannot be done, it simply requires a touch that Russell doesn’t have, at least here.
In that four-decades-old predecessor The Sting, Hill makes the execution of the con the film’s main focus, ensuring that each step and phase of the con remains interesting, then he populates this environment with colorful characters. Most of those characters are two-dimensional, but they don’t need that third dimension because the focus is on what they are doing. In Hustle, Russell focuses heavily on making the characters flashy, but in the process the con – and thus the world the characters inhabit – becomes the worst episode ever of Law & Order: Studio 54.
Russell’s intent on making this is a character-centric film is evident from the first scene, which shows Irving’s combover process in meticulous detail – a process that includes fake hair, layers of natural strands, glue, spray, and patience. It’s a great scene that tells you the kind of deliberate person Irving is, and this level of detailed thinking and execution stays with him throughout. The rest of the film is filled with moments like this, too, as well as some great quotes. (My favorite is Irving’s assessment of Rosalyn as being the “Picasso of passive/aggressive karate.”) Also of note are some of the sparkling interactions between and among the players, particularly between Irving and Carmine during their budding bromance (before such a thing existed) and a standoff between Rosalyn and Sydney in the ladies room.
Also of note are the spectacular hair and costumes. I never thought it would be possible to make the 1970s look great (again?), but damn if costume designer Michael Wilkinson and an army of makeup and hair specialists don’t pull it off. No matter how brown the browns or how wide the lapels, every stitch of polyester looks better than the last on the men, but it’s the women who look to-die-for here, with their breathlessly plunging necklines and their slink for days. If they time the DVD release of this film right, next year’s Halloween parties could be awash in disco-fueled (and fully licensed tie-in) fashions.
But a film cannot exist on moments and costumes alone. You need to make the journey between those moments interesting, you need to make it more than about appreciating jiggle and ogling cleavage. Russell, who cowrote the screenplay with Eric Warren Singer, fails to do that, offering long periods of tedium between flashes of greatness. The film slows about 20 minutes into it and it never gathers sustained momentum. Instead of living in the now, you wind up living just to make it to the next moment.
It’s too bad, because it wastes the excellent efforts of the stellar cast. In addition to fine supporting turns in smaller roles from the likes of Louis C.K. as Cooper’s FBI boss and Rohm as Renner’s wife (who seems less Political Wife and more Mafia Wife to great effect), the Fab Five leads really deliver.
When Oscar nominee Cooper is fifth on your depth chart, you know your cast is good. His Special Agent Overkill is the least fascinating of the characters, a go-getter who goes getting with all of the manic energy of his Pat character from Silver Linings Playbook. He has some great moments with Adams, and the man can disco dance, but ultimately I cared for and about him the least. From Renner you get the Pol with the Heart of Gold – a man of the people who, while not a saint, is certainly a good enough person that his motives to launch Atlantic City’s casino industry include creating jobs for New Jersey.
Adams is amazing as the con within the con, the only person of the group you wonder about in terms of her motives and loyalties. She not only consistently makes you wonder who she is playing and when, but for how long and to what end. She also steals the fashion show, proving herself to be every bit as sexy as blonde bombshell Lawrence, if not more so (through her confidence of character). Her partner in crime, Bale, simply disappears in his role. He has the heaviest workload, managing significant unique relationships with the other four, and doing so brilliantly under that constructed hair and being led by a glorious potbelly.
While the film might belong to Bale, it is routinely stolen by Lawrence, who puts on a performance here that dwarfs her Oscar-winning work in Playbook. Not only does she play mom, wife, lover, vamp, and foil with an ever-underlying hum of near-craziness, she always makes you believe that no matter what wrong she is doing, she believes what she is doing is right, so surely it must be right. Even when she starts a fire (not her first, humorously) in the new-fangled contraption called the microwave oven (or “science oven,” again humorously), she manages to deflect blame with reasoning that defies logic, yet leaves you nodding your head in agreement.
All of these performances actually keep the film afloat when lesser efforts would have let it sink the way it should have. This could have been a film for the ages, and yet. In the end, if Hill’s characters in The Sting are a pinch of salt that adds a pop of flavor to an already tasty meal, Russell’s characters in American Hustle are an entire shaker of salt dumped into a pot of water.