Seven of the eight films writer/director David O. Russell has done, including American Hustle, could be classified as comedies, which pretty much makes him a comedic filmmaker. But his humor sensibilities lie far from the likes of the Farrelly brothers or Judd Apatow.
Instead, he’s interested in things like social commentary, political satire and other weighty matters that broader comedies normally eschew. So it is with American Hustle, which takes a semi-real life look at the Abscam FBI sting operation in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Even though the film is upfront about how fictional it is, there are times when the lack of details is frustrating.
As Russell tells it, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner/mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are busted by rogue FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who then forces them to help him take down crooked politicians. Or supposedly crooked politicians; the nature of the stings DiMaso sets up give even a seasoned scammer like Rosenfeld pause.
One of their early marks is Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a man known for being honest to a fault. As lies pile upon lies, even Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) gets unwittingly pulled into the process, something she both despises and loves at the same time.
The satirical nature of the film is evident from its very first scene, when Russell pans the camera over Irving’s ample gut and his laughable attempts at making his comb-over work. In fact, bad hair is rampant throughout the film; Richie, Carmine and Rosalyn also sport mockable hairdos that can’t just be excused by the time period.
Russell wants the audience to laugh at these characters so much that the specifics of the story hardly matter. Their hubris and/or cluelessness is the focus, and, in that respect, Russell succeeds mightily.
Even though the film is upfront about how fictional it is, there are times when the lack of certain details or the juggling of multiple threads gets to be a bit frustrating. The allegiances of several characters shift back and forth during the film, and Russell expects the audience to just roll with it instead of questioning exactly why these people would renege or affirm their loyalties.
The acting of the main quintet is second-to-none. All five have at least been nominated for Oscars; Bale, Lawrence, Cooper and Adams have been honored for previous work with Russell. All of them deliver performances worthy of their resumes, with Bale and Adams coming out on top thanks to the substantive nature of their roles.
In the end, though, it’s hard to ignore the idea that, just like with 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, there’s just something missing from the completed product. American Hustle is a comedy about a serious topic, and Russell never finds a way to marry the two in order to make the result wholly satisfying.