Movie Review: 'American Hustle' (2013)

There are so many lessons to be gleaned from this smattered-together, critically adored, hot mess express. Loosely based on the true events of the 1970s Abscam scandal, “American Hustle” looks the part of a decadent period piece complete with exquisite costuming, sensational acting talent, and the gifts of a director who has been struggling to capture the magic he made in “Three Kings.” 

“American Hustle” director David O. Russell’s follow-up to the personally underwhelming “Silver Linings Playbook” follows in its overrated footsteps by keeping the glorious soundtrack of the 70s loud and a coherent plot relatively silent.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a man with a comb-over, a manic wife (Jennifer Lawrence), and an adorable adopted son. He and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) fell in love while inside a dry cleaning machine as dress-wear swirls around them. They are lovers and small-time con artists. They have a nifty scam that pockets them a nice enough living.

Then one day, all of that comes to an end when daffy FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) forces them to do his and the bureau’s bidding. That is the lucid version. “American Hustle” is splintered into non-chronological order that shuffles the deck into a timeline oblivion that is difficult to ascertain.

The characters are poorly fleshed out, mostly resembling the dimension of paper dolls. Christian Bale and Amy Adams do their level best to bring structure to their characterizations despite the fact they are working with one of the flimsiest scripts of their careers.

Not even Christian Bale, with his spectacular physical transformation, and Amy Adams, with her vibrant screen intensity, can distract from the awful/non-existent screenplay they are trying to make work. Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner are left to do the same.

Bradley Cooper goes above and beyond in his melodramatic characterization, this time undergoing his own “physical transformation” via hair curlers. When compared to Christian Bale, it is an especially flat offering. Cooper’s attempts to convey passion are muddled with the implementation of constant yelling, an approach that only registers as an annoyance.

Speaking of which, there are scenes in “American Hustle” that make absolutely no sense. Look no further than a scene where Amy Adams’ Sydney goes into a restroom and begins screaming as she sits on a toilet. It is a bizarre and unexplained shock sequence that is ridiculous. This scene illustrates the confused narrative that remains the only consistent aspect of this jumbled dalliance.

Why we should be rooting for any of these dastardly people as an idealist politician, Jeremy Renner’s Mayor Carmine Polito is torn apart by the sting operation is next to impossible to buy into. In the grey moral relativity of “American Hustle,” Polito’ is the only heart that seems to begin in the right place.

Lastly, filmmaking is a marriage. The screenplay, the direction, and the cast all have to work in concert to create something memorable. In “American Hustle,” jagged little pieces are strewn together in an attempt to create a mirage that has no foundation.

The self-indulgence and leisure this film allows itself are so excessive that you almost have to be impressed with its arrogance. “American Hustle” does embody the subject of hustling. As with any con, this film is a lot of smoke and mirrors with no substance to be found in its aftermath. Rating: 1.5/10