From the minute director David O. Russell's latest film AMERICAN HUSTLE begins, you never know whether you should laugh or watch in awe. It's not because the film is particularly bad; it's just...weird. The tone of the film--similar to a sketch comedy routine that runs on a bit too long--seems ill-fitting for the genre. Russell--with co-writer Eric Singer--approaches this Casino-like feature with the energy of an SNL episode--complete with light political commentary, theatrical costumes, bad hair and everything but a wink to the camera.
Christian Bale stars as Irving, New Jersey's first-rate con man of the 1970s--a slick-talking, pot-bellied man with an epic comb-over. He gets by on running small dry-cleaning scams until he meets Sydney (Amy Adams), a small town transport-turned-underpaid fashion editor in search of a more glamorous life. They're a match made in heaven--if you call his protruding gut and her dazzling, deep-cut dresses particularly an It couple. But they perfectly gel, until a giddy, pin-curled FBI agent by the name of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) enters the picture and wants in on their game. Reluctantly, the con artists recruit Richie and together they ascend to the highest, and most dangerous, heights of hustledom--conning high-ranking politicians and mobsters in flamboyant fashion.
Russell and the cast are obviously having a good ole time putting this showy production together, and laughing at themselves the whole time. Despite Bale's nearly unflinching portrayal of the hyper-serious, yet unintentionally hilarious, heart pill-popping Irving, it is Adams who adds some sense of validation to the film by essentially embodying two different characters. Between Sidney's desperation to win and her British alter ego, Lady Edith's, seductive confidence, she's got both her male counterparts wrapped around her finger and buckling at her every command. While Adams basks in the role, and completely sheds her typical mousy routine, it is clear by the several close-ups on her rear end and her plunging neckline that Russell may be enjoying her performance the most.
Although AMERICAN HUSTLE often relies too heavily on wild, glittery slapstick fare, the dialogue is entertaining and the pace is just right enough to keep you invested--even if you may be scratching your head at it the whole time. You don't particularly root for anyone in particular in the film--none of them are without guilt--which may deter certain audiences from truly connecting with the story. But with the film beginning and ending with Irving's mustached grin, it's natural to fall more deeply into his story than anyone else's--the way he tries to keep a firm grasp on a situation that falls completely out of hand, his resentful yet supportive relationship with his interfering and nutty young wife (Jennifer Lawrence), and his blind adoration for Sidney. Bale, as committed as always, is funny, stern and pathetic all at once--which allows his character to anchor the film.
While Irving struggles to keep everything on an even keel, Cooper as Richie is borderline delirious as an agent determined to make his mark on the con world without actually knowing what he's doing. If there was an award for most ambitious but mostly likely to fail, it would go to this guy. Cooper, who's like an even more reckless and arrogant version of his character in The Hangover movies (if you can imagine), sometimes steals the show with his cartoony line delivery. That is, if he doesn't already have you in stitches when he shows up in rollers, living with his mom in a small apartment while still trying to be the man. He's his own walking oxymoron. Even though many characters in the movie can be given that description (including Jeremy Renner as a greedy yet helpless New Jersey politician), he is messy about hiding his.
Is AMERICAN HUSTLE a good movie? Sure. Is it a great movie? Not even close. It's enjoyable and fun to watch, but just barely touches the surface of its own narrative. It borrows from several other great movies and twists the tone so that it seems fresh yet odd at the same time. It's hard to take the film seriously, despite Russell's dependable cast (with the exception of Renner, he's previously worked with each member of the main cast). But while it's ridiculous at times, and relies more on parody than what happens between the focal trio of characters (which is actually clever, in an elementary sort of way), it's strangely interesting. Though, you may wonder if you're smarter than the film or if it's vice versa.
Rating: B- (*** out of *****)
AMERICAN HUSTLE opens in limited release on Fridays, and will be in theaters nationwide on December 20th.