Review: David O. Russell's Delirious & Virtuoso 'American Hustle' With Christian Bale, Amy Adams & More

Reviews
by Todd Gilchrist
December 13, 2013 12:23 PM
36 Comments
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Since making his “comeback” in 2010 with “The Fighter,” David O. Russell has become a filmmaker to admire and respect—but not necessarily love. Both that film and “Silver Linings Playbook” expertly executed their narrative formulas, drawing adoration critical and commercial praise alike, but neither surpass the many, many others that used those same formulas, and unfortunately neither does “American Hustle.” But the difference at least with his latest effort is that it subverts the focus of other ‘70s-set movies about charming crooks—of which “Goodfellas” is the standard-bearer—by emphasizing emotional mechanics over the ones used to perpetrate their crimes.

Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a low-level con man who teams up professionally—and romantically—with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to hustle suckers out of $5,000 at a time. The duo eventually attracts the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who demands their help ensnaring corrupt New Jersey power brokers in exchange for their freedom. Eventually setting his sights on Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), DiMaso instructs Rosenfeld to ingratiate himself with the politician, even as he finds himself growing close to Sydney. But after Rosenfeld decides to bring along his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) in order to maintain the veneer of normalcy, the con man’s relationship with Sydney begins to deteriorate even as his unpredictable wife threatens to reveal his true motives to Polito, not to mention the mobsters DiMaso hopes to apprehend with the politician’s arrest.

Although movies like “Goodfellas” are indisputable forebears for Russell’s decadent tale of crime and punishment, the filmmaker distinguishes himself by creating a complex and compelling web of manipulation between the characters that eventually supersedes any of their scheming or con artistry. Indeed, there’s a tendency with movies like this to look ahead from the salad days to the fall from grace, or further, the grand lesson to be taken away from all of the misbehavior and its repercussions, but Russell trains his attention on how all of that behavior directly affects his leads on a deep and personal level and virtually ignores its impact anywhere else.

As the would-be central figures in the story, Rosenfeld and Prosser bond immediately, and share a connection that anyone would be lucky to have. But as DiMaso chips away at their solidarity, and Rosalyn erodes Irving’s resolve, each new development exerts a kind of pressure on all of them that, quite frankly, I feel like I haven’t quite seen in a film like this. Each time DiMaso instructs Rosenfeld to go after another money man, another politician, what’s more interesting than whether or not he succeeds is how his pursuit affects his relationship with Prosser. There’s much more going on than simple jealousy or betrayal: these are characters defined by their ability to prevail over adversity, and each new challenge tests the persona they use to seduce not just an unlucky mark, a suspicious mob boss or the FBI, but the people they love, and even (possibly most importantly) themselves.

While it’s perhaps easier to take for granted Bale’s chameleonic transformation into Rosenfeld—conspicuously overweight, living in an utterly convincing New Jersey accent—Adams is a revelation as Prosser, a young woman who wields her sexuality like a hatchet while simultaneously seducing her victim with a scalpel-like veneer of refinement and sophistication. Meanwhile, it seems impossible to describe DiMaso as anything other than a complete fucking asshole—the embodiment of a person who believes a man’s reach should exceed his grasp—and even though Cooper no doubt harbors some sympathy for the sociopath, he disguises it well enough to enable the audience to properly hate his naïve, aggressive, short-sighted ambition.

As Rosalyn, Lawrence initially seems to have a smaller role in the film than she ultimately plays, but once her character becomes part of the machinery of her husband’s FBI-sanctioned hustle, she steals virtually every scene in which she appears. While there’s admittedly a little bit of grandstanding in her performance—not necessarily from Lawrence herself, but from Russell utilizing her as this irresistible force of nature—the young actress continues to prove not just her versatility but believability, juxtaposing the character’s obnoxious stupidity and her desperate vulnerability in a way that makes her an equal competitor for Irving’s affections, no matter how wrong for him she demonstrates that she is.

Bolstered by a soundtrack full of period songs that have (mostly) not been used elsewhere, Russell builds a real world for these characters that never becomes too indulgent, either cinematically or narratively. Much like Rosenfeld’s would-be business plan, the film seems content to indulge itself in the delirious hedonism of the 1970s only to a certain limit, never forgetting that the characters’ ambitions were intentionally modest, and even then the risks outweighed the rewards. But again, Russell’s emphasis on the palpable connections between the characters—Irving and Sydney, Sydney and Richie, Richie and Irving, Irving and Rosalyn—drives the story forward in ways that make us tense up less about their potential incarceration than the future of their relationships.

Again, however, Russell’s effortless proficiency in bringing all of these elements together is decidedly more admirable than affecting. It’s admittedly hard to pinpoint exactly why this is, but as a fan of his earlier work—especially the absorbing philosophical latticework of “I Heart Huckabees”—this film and its two predecessors exhibit a virtuoso style and storytelling specificity that oddly underscores the fact that they otherwise do almost nothing truly surprising. Ultimately, however, it’s hard to begrudge the film for its lack of next-level resonance, since the characters are interesting, the performances wonderful, and the story mostly compelling. In which case, “American Hustle” is only almost a great film, because Russell and his ensemble fail to make audiences care about the end result precisely as much as they obviously did about creating it. [B+]


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36 Comments

  • Bk | January 9, 2014 3:10 PMReply

    I really don't get how Lawrence stole the scenes in this movie. I'm a Lawrence fan. She's a brilliant actress but too many people are watching American Hustle with the J.Law bias. It's so bad that right now, Lawrence can appear in a movie and not say a word and somehow still "steal the scenes". I'v never been an Amy Adams fan but she gave the best and most convincing performance in American Hustle.
    Lawrence gave Rosalyn life but took her performance from funny and believable to outright absurd.
    I like Lawrence, I'm a fan but I think it's absolutely unfair that the J.Law bias is not letting people appreciate Amy Adams performance. She was absolutely brilliant! And yes, gave a better performance, the best in this movie.

  • Chris Hawkes | December 21, 2013 6:30 PMReply

    I think American Hustle was a good movie. I rated it a 8/10 on NoobMovies.com. Adams was great but overall the story was unforgettable.

  • Gobsmacked | December 14, 2013 5:20 PMReply

    "into Rosenfeld—conspicuously overweight, living in an utterly convincing New Jersey accent—"

    Probably because he was raised in the Bronx and lived on Long Island in the film's time frame. He's not from NJ.

  • jimmiescoffee | December 13, 2013 3:39 PMReply

    i liked this film quite a bit overall. that being said, it never made me feel like the stakes were all that high.

  • LB | December 13, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    I find it weird that people write off SLP I mean when has Hollywood ever tackled mental illness, without it descending into shock therapy and the comatose, which is what I would describe as the Hollywood cliché. I think it did something really smart by paying homage to classic screwball, and as someone who has had personal experience of mental illness I was not in the least insulted, I just found it refreshing to see the subject tackled in a tone that was human, warm and without that solemn, melodramatic vibe of pity, which may feel more worthy but actually sucks.

  • Snowmister | December 10, 2013 11:49 PMReply

    Silver Lining's reliance on Hollywood cliches undermines its charm and effectiveness on repeat viewings. Sounds like this movie is the same. Great costumes, though.

  • Carmen | December 10, 2013 11:22 AMReply

    need the name of the song that was played when Amy and Richie were walking on the street to go dancing.

  • shelly | December 14, 2013 12:19 AM

    todd rundgren i saw the light

  • Daniel Delago | December 10, 2013 4:14 AMReply

    I like the new movie stills from the film. The extraordinary talent of David O. Russell is his ability to jump from one genre to the next effortlessly. The reviewer's admiration for Martin Scorsese is commendable. No doubt about it, Scorsese is a great director but what makes Russell a double-threat is his ability to write compelling screenplays too.

  • Dan H | December 9, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    I immediately list all respect for the reviewer when he basically said he liked I Heart Huckabees better than The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Try not to conform to the hipster/indie rule book, just once.

  • FF | December 13, 2013 4:06 PM

    I wouldn't compare Huckabees to something like Silver Linings Playbook. Totally different films. Quirky screwball comedy vs. romantic comedy with mentall illness and drama. Different worlds.

  • jimmiescoffee | December 13, 2013 3:41 PM

    i like i heart huckabees better than both those movies. so.

  • Dan S | December 13, 2013 2:56 PM

    It was in an interview posted here: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/afi-fest-director-david-o-russell-talks-the-loose-immediacy-of-film-his-least-favorite-work-advice-for-auditioning-actors-20131111?page=2#blogPostHeaderPanel.

    But he calls it his least favorite film, not a terrible one.

  • Jake17 | December 13, 2013 12:34 PM

    I know he said something to that effect in an interview I read, can't remember where.

  • Todd Gilchrist | December 10, 2013 6:11 PM

    To Egghead -- not disputing you, but where did Russell say that?

  • egghead | December 10, 2013 1:44 AM

    Thought the same thing. Even Russell admits that's a terrible movie.

  • DA | December 8, 2013 3:01 PMReply

    Boring, ordinary, well done, well acted, but I'd so much rather watch a movie from the 1970's : sorry back then maybe Hal Ashby would have been directing, while Donald Sutherland and Ryan O'Neal or Elliot Gould could have been phenomenal, Julie Christie in the Amy Adams role would have shined and Ellen Burstyn in the Lawrence role would have been truly piercing and not just quickly forgettable ! Ah, where did all the true real stars, and truly innovative personal directors end up ? While financing movies with people and script so safe so telephoned to become annoying and frankly .. Uneventful?

  • plankton 8 | December 5, 2013 3:19 PMReply

    I hate when movies have 2013-looking actors mildly dressed up to look like they're in the 70's. Sorry, but back then the hair was all over the place. Untameable. Modern audiences would revolt, or so studio heads would assume.

  • yod | December 4, 2013 9:51 PMReply

    There goes O Russell pearing running shoes with a suit again.

  • Dan | December 4, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    Amy Adams has been a revelation since JUNEBUG, and DOUBT and THE FIGHTER and THE MASTER. Give her an oscar!

  • A. | December 4, 2013 3:29 PMReply

    Jennifer Lawrence has been receiving rave reviews for her performance in this film...I love it!....get that third Oscar nomination Jennifer Lawrence!!.

  • Boni | January 9, 2014 3:15 PM

    Amy Adams should have gotten an Oscar nod. We love us some J.Law but Adams clearly gave a better and more believable performance.

  • Boni | January 9, 2014 3:14 PM

    Amy Adams should have gotten an Oscar nod. We love us some J.Law but Adams clearly gave a better and more believable performance.

  • oogle monster | December 4, 2013 12:59 PMReply

    YES, Adams is a revelation! Thank gawd all of these reviews are rolling in. I love me some JLaw but please god don't let her overshadow Adams. Get that #5 nod, girl!

  • alpha flyer | December 4, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    And what about Jeremy Renner's performance as the target - two-time Oscar nominee with buzz for this one? Based on what I've seen, his transformation is as complete as Bale's. Is he channeling Joe Pesci, or creating something entirely new? Inquiring minds would like to hear views ...

  • GraceL | December 4, 2013 3:54 PM

    I prefer Eric Kohns indiewire review of this film: David O. Russell's 'American Hustle' Is Snazzy And Fun -- With a Purpose. He focuses more on the large scale aspect of the movie; I'm sorry, I can't give credit to bloggers like these who spent too much time reviewing the actors and not the movie. Kohn doesn't highlight many performances, but talks about the film as a whole and how Russell's performance-focus is both the movie's strength and weakness in a way. Renner is excellent in this film as well, all 5 are. I don't count on reviews like these that use their word limit to talk about Lawrence; check out Kohn when pulling from indiewire.

  • alpha flyer | December 4, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    And what about Jeremy Renner's performance as the target - two-time Oscar nominee with buzz for this one? Based on what I've seen, his transformation is as complete as Bale's. Is he channeling Joe Pesci, or creating something entirely new? Inquiring minds would like to hear views ...

  • Keith | December 7, 2013 12:15 AM

    But wasn't that the point of his review of the film? That Russell concentrated on the actors not the film as a whole. So his review reflected that...

  • Laur | December 4, 2013 12:35 PMReply

    Rosalyn's "obnoxious stupidity"? So Lawrence is playing herself, I see.

  • Mike | January 8, 2014 3:48 PM

    Jealous much?

  • Jack | January 6, 2014 10:33 PM

    Wow people are so mean. I'm not a fan of Jlaw but to call somebody stupid is just....I don't even have words for how despicable you people are.

  • Meg | December 29, 2013 11:27 PM

    Thank God someone else sees it. I'd be surprised if it comes out that Lawrence can tie her own shoes.

  • Jess | December 13, 2013 12:39 PM

    And here I was wondering if you people existed at all.

  • Keith | December 7, 2013 12:14 AM

    Laur, did insulting Lawrence make you feel good about yourself?

  • stan | December 6, 2013 2:05 PM

    haha I kinda agree! Sounds like this character is nothing different from her character in SLP...this is what fans said "versatility"? lol

  • Kay | December 5, 2013 7:43 PM

    And Laur is blowing nonsense from his big mouth!

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