Thrilling ‘American Hustle’ finishes flat

Walking the tightrope between emulation and imitation is a hard feat to pull off.


American Hustle
Rating: R
Running time: 138 min.
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence

David O. Russell, though, does it with aplomb and style in American Hustle, a 70s crime drama inarguably inspired by the works of Martin Scorsese and George Roy Hill.

Told through the type of narration you may remember from Goodfellas and Casino, the story begins with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) falling in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).

As she recalls:

“…he wasn’t necessarily in good shape, and he had this comb over that was rather … elaborate.”

But Irvin possesses a magnetic confidence, and the two immediately fall for each other to the melodic and soulful music of Duke Ellington.

Aside from love, the two are connected by their backgrounds: underprivileged upbringings that forced each of them to make do with what they had.

It’s not too surprising when Irvin ended up where he did: A con artist who peddles forged art to gullible collectors willing to pay big money for what they believe to be the original.

But as Sydney enters, Irvin abandons that business to team up with her in creating a fake loan enterprise, duping desperate people into handing over thousands of dollars in hopes that they’ll receive plentiful returns.

After moderate success, the swift swindlers are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who gives them the unique opportunity to absolve themselves of all crimes if they assist with entrapping corrupt politicians with the offer of bribes from a fake “sheikh.”

As the film mentions from the get go, “some of this may have actually happened” – which should be a good indicator that Russell is blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Whether his re-creation of this story is accurate is up for interpretation. Regardless, the film is imbued with enough energy and panache that make the proceedings – falsified or not – entertaining.

In the vein of films like The Sting and Duplicity, the viewer is never quite sure who is playing who, and why one may be hustling the other.

This is especially true in watching Richie, Sydney, and Irvin work together.Each player has their own set of motives.

Richie, mercurial and erratic, is ready to finally stop pushing papers in the office and make a name for himself.

Sydney, who assumes a British identity (note: they’re all from New Jersey), may or may not be taking a romantic liking to Richie.

And Irvin, who is also responsible for a wife (played by the scene-stealing Jennifer Lawrence) and a kid, is attempting to figure out what the next move is.

Chances are that, by the descriptions I’ve provided, it will be tough for viewers to muster up anything resembling sympathy.

And quite frankly, apathy would be justified, if not for the character of Mayor Carmine Pollito (Jeremy Renner), a virtuous family man adored by his community who gets tempted by Irvin and Sydney’s promise to fund a restoration of the boardwalk.

Genial and well-intentioned, Carmine falls victim to the temptation of millions of dollars flowing through his city and agrees to work with the crooks. Upon his eventual demise, you can’t help but feel bad for a man who only succumbed to shady dealings to help his people.

More prosaic than provocative, Russell’s film (scripted by Eric Singer) misfires on the ending after 138 minutes of fast-talking, sexual tension, and ostentatious clothing.

The resolution feels tacked on and incomplete, as if Russell and Co. got two hours into drafting the story and then suddenly realized they didn’t quite know how to wrap things up.

Conclusion aside, the duplicitous nature of American Hustle makes for the type-thrilling cinematic experience Russell similarly delivered in Three Kings back in 1999.

However, it’s a pity that American Hustle – while certainly containing the underpinnings of a great film — ultimately lacks the breadth and depth of the films it originates from.