American Hustle is a polarizing movie. I’ve spoken to quite a few people about it. Some love it, some hate it, some were enthralled, and some were put off. Point is, it elicits a response from you. It doesn’t play it safe and beg to be liked. It takes risks, and taking risks means sometimes alienating certain members of your audience. Point is, I think that too many big budget studio films are playing it safe nowadays, which is why, when a film comes along that takes a lot of bold risks–like it or not–it is deserving of respect.
For those of you not familiar with the plot, American Hustle follows Irving Rosenfeld (an overweight Christian Bale), a man who has mastered the art of conning in order to survive. He and his partner, Sydney Prosser (an often-scantily-clad Amy Adams), run small-time cons until they’re caught by rogue FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), and forced to go undercover. DiMaso has them go after corrupt mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), but the con keeps growing out of control, and begins to implicate dangerous and powerful people. Worse yet, Irving’s desperate and dense wife (Jennifer Lawrence) is in a position to ruin the entire operation and get them all killed.
The movie works a lot like a con, in that it involves a whole lot of moving parts that have to work together and play out just right. The problem is that ever character in this movie is out for themselves, and half the time, you’re watching a scene and wondering exactly who is playing who. This is extremely difficult from a writing standpoint, because not only does every character have to play their part, but they also have to possess motivation that’s believable. This is certainly one area where the movie excels. Every character’s story moves in and out of all the others with surprising believability and complexity. And make sure that you pay attention, because this movie doesn’t try to hold your hand throughout the way. Sure, there are narrations and voice overs to help you out, but they serve more as an interior monologue for the character than a way to help the plot along. It’s that combination of complexity and lack of spoon-feeding that I imagine puts a lot of people off. I know that’s precisely what Will didn’t like about it. But I found the task of keeping up to be a refreshing challenge, and a welcome break from a lot of the processed, pre-chewed, spoonfed stories I see in too many other movies.
The other main asset to this film is the acting, which is superb. Christian Bale disappears into his role as always. Jennifer Lawrence is the dynamic, unhinged, unpredictable force of nature we fell in love with in Silver Linings Playbook. Cooper is a first-rate douchebag that still manages to invoke a bit of sympathy in you. Adams pulls off the most demanding role I’ve seen from her yet. David O. Russell has proven time and time again that he knows how to get good performances out of his actors. Better yet, his scenes don’t feel like a bunch of actors reading through their lines. Instead, it’s like he puts his characters in a test tube and applies heat, and every reaction he gets feels spontaneous and organic.
But all of those merits that I listed aren’t a guarantee that you’ll like the film. It’s like a really dark chocolate or a glass of good whiskey–it’s not for everyone. On the contrary, it can come on way too strong for a lot of people to enjoy. But if that’s your thing, you’re almost certainly going to enjoy it. If you’re the kind of person that gets sick of predicting the ending halfway through the film, then give this one a try. If you can predict the ending, then I bow to your psychic powers. Meanwhile, even if it’s not the kind of movie you necessarily like, there’s no denying that it was well made.