I’ve been a fan of director David O. Russell since I fell head over heels for ‘Three Kings‘. I loved that he gained Oscar traction in 2010 with ‘The Fighter‘, and believe that he truly deserved the Best Picture statue for last year’s ‘Silver Linings Playbook‘. Yet I can’t help feeling that his latest, ‘American Hustle’, is a sloppily thrown-together mess.
Previously titled ‘American Bullshit’, the film is very loosely based on the true story of a con man (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend/partner (Amy Adams), who were busted by the feds (led by Bradley Cooper) and forced into setting up a sting on a corrupt politician (Jeremy Renner). The movie kicks off with a great set-up for the characters. We see how Bale and Adams meet, fall in love and become partners. It’s actually kind of sweet – that is, until we learn that Bale’s character is married and that he adopted his wife’s kid. We start to feel bad for his unsuspecting wife (Jennifer Lawrence), until we see her in action. You see, right when we start to believe that Bale’s character is an asshole for cheating on her, we discover that Lawrence’s character is just as conniving and manipulative. As I watched, I kept thinking of that line from ‘Spaceballs’: “I’m surrounded by assholes!”
Once the plot starts building, ‘American Hustle’ begins to get complicated. I’m fine with complex storylines, but if they’re muddled and undefined, the complexity becomes a nuisance. Sadly, that’s the problem with this movie. It’s messy and convoluted. The tone is inconsistent, as is the way we’re made to feel about each character. Jennifer Lawrence absolutely knocks it out of the park with her performance – she’s earned my vote for Best Supporting Actress – but Russell just can’t figure out how he wants us to feel about her. At times, she’s made out to be the bad guy. Yes, her husband is cheating on her, but she doesn’t seem to love him anyway, so that doesn’t matter. Then, halfway through the film, the tables turn and she’s made out to be the sympathetic victim. A short time later, she turns yet again and we’re made to write her off. These flip-flops not only occur with character portrayals, but with the film’s tone. For example, we’ll laugh, it gets serious, another joke tries to make us laugh again, but given the seriousness, it’s not funny. Instead, that second joke is extremely unfitting and makes ‘American Hustle’ feel like an amateur affair. This happens over and over again, a few times occurring during crucial moments.
I walked into ‘American Hustle’ expecting it to be the best film of the year. Sadly, it’s not. It’s a mess. The performances are fantastic, especially Lawrence and Adams, and the overall style is great, but the wonky editing and the uneven pace and tone ruin it. Aside from Lawrence’s remarkable role, it’s forgettable. David O. Russell has hustled us. There are plenty of other films out this holiday that are much more worthy of your time and money than ‘American Hustle’.