Director David O. Russell follows The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook with the third entry in his self-proposed “reinvention” trilogy, a film which is getting as much gold and silver on the mantelpiece this award season as his previous two, but less deservedly so.
Very loosely based on the late 70’s ABSCAM operations, American Hustle stars Bradley Cooper as crooked FBI agent Richie DiMaso who gives con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, in an uncharacteristically terrible performance) an ultimatum- he won’t arrest them as part of an on-going loan scam if they can help him arrest four others.
To make matters more complicated, Prosser is posing as a member of the British aristocracy (involving the worst English accent this side of Dick Van Dyke), whilst Rosenfield is cheating on his mentally unstable pyromaniac wife (Jennifer Lawrence, the best of the film’s four star turns) with Prosser, a not-so secret secret that threatens to derail the entire undercover investigation.
Whereas Russell’s previous two films were directly about reinvention on a direct emotional level (Bale’s Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter trying to overcome drug addiction to restart his career and Silver Linings’ Pat trying to overcome his bipolar disorder to win back the love of his wife), American Hustle is only about that theme on a surface level, with the characters only reinventing themselves in order to con each other. The fact you don’t care about these characters means that although the film is as much fun as O. Russell’s previous two efforts, it’s infinitely less interesting.
The film was originally submitted to the “Best Drama” category at the Golden Globes, but ended up in the “Best Comedy” category. I remember reading an interview with Brass Eye/ Four Lions creator Chris Morris about how he doesn’t like being called a satirist, and furthermore how he doesn’t like the word “comedy” as it “gives you the image of people in suits gurning and trying too hard to make you laugh”. This sums up American Hustle’s problems in a nutshell; with all the male characters dressed as extras in Saturday Night Fever and all the female ones as cover photos for mid-seventies Roxy Music albums, not to mention the overacting of all four lead performances, the film is simply trying too hard to be funny, which means many jokes fall flat.
Despite these reservations, the film is still a worthwhile watch, although if you go expecting either the best film of the year (or just the best comedy of the year) you’ll be severely disappointed.