Though it must overcome significant flaws, American Hustle succeeds.
Mostly because the film’s tremendous cast never disappoints, sometimes despite their director’s interference. Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld) and Jeremy Renner (Carmine Polito) steal the show from American Hustle’s astonishing leads, which is no small achievement.
Especially because the leads are also captivating. Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) and Bradley Cooper (Richie Damaso) never miss a beat either.
All five actors could be nominated for acting Oscars. Four could win, and many viewers would understand.
Which says nothing about Robert De Niro (in a beguiling cameo), Allesandro Nivola, Michael Pena, Shea Whigman, Louis CK or the other talented actors in minor roles. 2013 has been a year for quality performances, but American Hustle is easily the finest ensemble of the year.
As effective as the actors: the humor. American Hustle is riotously funny.
It is also emotional. When Richie (Cooper) threatens someone he shouldn’t, for example, we feel both angry and scared, even as we’re laughing. Obviously, the cast owns credit for blending the two elements so well, but so do Writer/Director David O. Russell and Co-Writer Eric Singer.
Their script develops its characters well enough that each works.
Russell also wisely keeps his camera stationary much of the time, limits cuts and lets scenes develop naturally in extended takes. He gets the best out of his actors by not interfering, by letting them work.
Yet, writer and director produce the film’s greatest weaknesses, as well, starting with an overly expository introduction that spans too much screen time and relies on too much voice over from three different characters.
That latter problem plagues most of the movie. Employed frequently, voice over defines relationships and characters before images and actors show them. Within the first several minutes of the movie, for instance, we are told Rosalyn (Lawrence) is a passive aggressive manipulator even though we haven’t yet seen it. We are told Sydney (Adams) and Irving (Bale) are soul mates before we see them interact outside of montage. And so forth. It’s as if Russell doesn’t trust himself (or his cast) to show us pertinent information, so he tells it to us first, just to be safe.
Which is a shame. Because even if Russell had skipped the voice over altogether, we would know everything it tells us. Such is Russell’s storytelling skill throughout the rest of the movie.
The voice over’s mistakes are replicated by American Hustle’s soundtrack. While the songs appropriately set tone, they are often unnecessary, meaning Russell relies on too much music to cue the audience.
For all of that American Hustle remains a very good feature. In addition to the actors, character development, humor and emotion, the plot is engrossing, even if it is sometimes outlandish.
The costuming, makeup, set pieces and other period details help develop the narrative.
Perhaps most importantly, American Hustle is always fun.