“Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew your choices were bad—but you had to survive?”
Most films go heavy on plot and light on characters, but I have to admit, I’m a sucker for strong characters even when the plot is not stellar. American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, I Heart Huckabees) and featuring an amazing all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, has amazing characters and performances, even if the plot meanders a bit more than it should. It’s also a ton of fun and a great slice of authentic 70s goodness, even though it came out in 2013. Every character, from the con man to his distant wife of convenience to his brilliant mistress and partner in crime to the overzealous FBI agent, has more vices than virtues, but they’re so complex and fleshed-out that I found myself mesmerized by the characters interacting on screen. If you want a complex and brilliant plot, go watch Chinatown; but if you want a fun film with great characters and style, look no further than American Hustle.
The plot centers on Irving Rosenfeld, a brilliant con man in the 70s. For years, he’s worked with Sydney Prosser, a beautiful and equally cunning con woman who’s also his lover on the side. When the two of them are busted by Richie DeMaso, an FBI agent eager to make a name for himself, they’re all forced to work together to bring down some public figures suspected of corruption. Richie’s hubris quickly escalates this job into something much bigger than any of them imagined and the three of them go deeper under cover to bring down multiple politicians and political figures. When Rosalyn, Irving’s volatile young wife, gets involved, and when the scope of Richie’s job snowballs out of control, Irving and Sydney find themselves in more trouble than they can handle.
Maybe we’re both gross inside. That’s what Irving loves about us. At least he’s consistent. You know, sometimes in life, all you have are fucked up, poisonous choices.
While many films will sacrifice characterization for the plot, American Hustle does the exact opposite. Director David O. Russell let the characters explore their motivations and reactions, even rewriting and improvising scenes as they filmed. At one point, Christian Bale suggested a change, which got OKed by Russell, then warned, “You realize that this is going to change the plot greatly down track.” Russell replied, “Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” The result is characters that feel not only completely fleshed out, but also completely organic and real. This gives a real unpredictability to the film, as you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen when you put these characters in a room together. Couple this with the moral ambiguity of not only the characters, but the plot overall, and you have a film that feels very different from other crime films. About an hour into the film, I thought I had a good handle on where the film was going. I was dead wrong. This isn’t a film that sets up shocking twists—it just leaves the audience completely blind in seeing where it’s going to go, and that’s part of the fun.
A character-driven film wouldn’t work without great performances, and American Hustle delivers here too. Christian Bale was nearly unrecognizable and totally nailed the brilliant sleazeball con-man who still holds onto some moral values, however inconvenient they may be. In fact, when Robert De Niro was brought in for his scenes, he didn’t recognize Bale and pulled Russell aside and asked who he was. Amy Adams, though typically a very subtle actor, played the many different aspects of her character well. Bradley Cooper played an FBI agent who was simultaneously pathetic and passionate, which is a very curious mix, but he made it work. The highlight for me, though, was Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, Irving’s younger wife who’s determined to be her own person even when dragged into her husband’s dirty business dealings, and even when not playing a part might be disastrous and dangerous. Lawrence is proving she is one of the most talented young actresses in Hollywood today, and this film shows us that she can play a deeply flawed character just as well as the hero. Russell brought out amazing performances from all of the cast, even minor characters, but it wasn’t easy. He was reportedly so harsh toward the cast that Amy Adams ended up crying almost every day on-set.
Watching the film, it was so unpredictable that I initially wasn’t sure what to expect mood-wise, but it’s overall a very fun experience. Even when characters collided and put each other in danger, it was thrilling, not foreboding. The humor, both in the form of funny characters and a comedy of errors, works throughout the film to keep a smile on your face even as the characters face real danger. And this isn’t just a film about a con man; it’s a con movie, and the lying, scheming, and misdirection all work well.
Overall, I loved American Hustle, with its mix of smart characters, a few good cons, and humor. The chief complaint others have about it is the fact that the plot meanders a bit more than other tightly-scripted crime films, but I would not describe this plot as weak. If you love character-driven films and con movies, this is a must-see film. It might also be worth seeing just for the strength of the performances by all of the actors and actresses.
Director: David O. Russell
Genres: crime, drama, indie