By Savannah Wood
On the wake of American Hustle’s seven Golden Globe nominations and widespread critical acclaim, I went into the theater with high expectations. Certainly I enjoyed myself over the course of the almost two and a half hour-long film, but when it was over I wasn’t left with the buzzing positivity I was expecting.
American Hustle opened with a wonderful scene of Irving (Christian Bale) folding chunks of hair, glueing, twisting, and fashioning piece by piece a comedically elaborate toupee. We see from the get-go he’s a man who has duplicitously and carefully constructed an entire façade to get what he wants. His hair is a front, as are his glass and dry-cleaning businesses–Irving is a hustler. He offers loans to the kinds of people banks steer far away from, collects a fee, and never delivers. Irving meets the beautiful Sydney (Amy Adams), another like-minded soul just trying to get by, and he takes her on as his business partner and his mistress until they’re busted by Richie (Bradley Cooper), a federal agent who gives them an out: help the government catch some hustlers, and walk free. Irving and Sydney consent, and thus the plot unfolds: con-men conning con-men, a whirlwind of dubious morality and artifice. The first part of the movie was a little long, and not necessarily fast, but I didn’t mind. Irving and Sydney’s relationship was gravitational, and the character study was enchanting. But a lot of that potential, particularly for the women, was left by the wayside as the film progressed, getting a bit too caught up in its narrative twists and turns to realize that it was flattening out its characters as it plowed along.
American Hustle certainly had some significant things going for it. The acting was superb–Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable behind 45 extra pounds and a pair of aviators, was excellent as ever, Jennifer Lawrence shined as Irving’s erratic, infantile wife, and Amy Adam slid through every persona effortlessly. The watery yellows and paisley of the ultra-70’s hotel rooms, the perfectly coiffed piles and piles of hair, and the sequins and v-necks all screamed of opulence without substance. Which is, in a lot of ways, an apt description of the film itself. American Hustle is meant for entertainment, not analysis. The con-job wasn’t overly complicated, but it was unpredictable and fun enough to skirt over a few dropped threads and inconsistencies. The characters were innately human, flawed, and hypocritical–not always or relatable, which worked favorably sometimes and didn’t others. David O. Russell certainly loves to glamorize aggression without consequences, and there were moments when I wanted to fan away the fumes of testosterone. The film’s strongest moments were not its loudest–it was the idiosyncrasies that really did the trick. Had O. Russell realized that his gold mine lay in the engaging ensemble instead of getting caught up in the same superficiality that drew in his protagonists, it would have gotten higher marks from me. But as is, I’m giving it a solid B+.