It’s the same every year. Early in January, with awards season looming, Hollywood’s leading Oscar contenders arrive on British shores fresh from their domestic success, galvanised by their extensive awards promotion to draw yet more financial gain. This year’s big three, The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle, were deliberately released across the UK in the space of a fortnight to draw a large audience. While the awards season marketing campaign ensured that each of these American films hustled their way to the top of the UK box-office charts it also gave them immense expectations; expectations that David O. Russell’s follow up to his thoroughly rewarding Silver Linings Playbook fails to live up to.
American Hustle begins effectively as retro production logos and autumnal colours establish a vintage aesthetic that immerses the audience in an authentic seventies setting, one of the few achievements the director maintains throughout this underwhelming experience. Soon after, a conflicting title card “some of this actually happened” establishes an enticing, yet pompous tone for O. Russell’s wildly embellished retelling of the Abscam scandal.
The narrative follows two notorious con artists who are blackmailed into an FBI agent’s elaborate sting operation on corrupt politicians. As a crime drama that explores these unique characters and their dysfunctional relationships American Hustle is initially inviting, but before long descends into obscurity, over-complication and grating unevenness.
Christian Bale is barely recognisable as Irving Rosenfeld after another shocking body transformation leaves him sporting a bulging gut and horrific comb over to perfectly convey his character’s sleazy arrogance. Sadly, Bale’s extreme efforts are wasted as O. Russell remains reliant on the painful exposition of a voice over to establish his character. In this multifaceted character study Irving is the closest to a lead, but he, like every other character, is neither empathetic nor compelling enough to carry an entire film.
Bale leads an ensemble of actors who overcome the weakness of the script to offer glimpses of the performances they could’ve delivered under better circumstances. Amy Adams triumphs as the provocative and alluring Sydney Prosser, the succubus who lures men into the cons. An assured Bradley Cooper strikes a fine balance between intense emotion and subtle comedy as tenacious FBI agent Richie DiMaso. O. Russell moulds his narrative around a love triangle that develops between these three characters, but where each of their dysfunctional relationships make for compelling viewing individually they fail to make a convincing whole.
American Hustle is dominated by the performances with the likes of Louis CK injecting much needed comedy and Robert De Niro turning back the clock in a pleasing cameo. Once again, however, it’s Jennifer Lawrence who eclipses with a brash and excessive performance as Irving’s fiery wife Rosalyn. As a single mother managing addiction, heartache and regret this is another unconventional role, but it’s expertly handled by an actress at the height of her potential. Yet, for each of their fine efforts the cast lack a coherent and engaging narrative to complement their performances, which makes their excessive improvisations overwhelming and extraneous.
Like so many films released during this period, American Hustle suffered from the excessive hyperbole surrounding its Oscar buzz that ensured its commercial success. I’d offer a belated warning to avoid being conned by this film, but sadly its box-office success confirms I wasn’t the only one hustled into this thoroughly disappointing experience.