I didn’t see American Hustle until after it had garnered ten Oscar nominations and a slew of other accolades, which explains why my expectations for David O. Russell’s period crime caper were so unreasonably high. Watching a film is an inherently subjective experience, so going in knowing about all the awards attention didn’t help – instead, it painted a picture in my head of a movie so thoroughly excellent that it would amaze, delight and utterly defy criticism.
American Hustle is not that movie – it’s far from perfect, which I should have expected. A flawless film only comes along once in a blue moon, after all. Russell’s film is sometimes confusing and consistently over-the-top, and its focus on style over substance leaves a little to be desired. Those flaws stated, there’s something much more important that American Hustle gets right – namely, it’s one of the plainly fun movies I’ve seen in years, as well as a ruthlessly entertaining burst of filmmaking energy. The costumes entrance, the performances dazzle and Russell’s direction positively hums with enthusiasm. If you let yourself get hustled by it, so to speak, the movie will sweep you off your feet, as Russell intended it to, weaknesses be damned.
Set in the late ’70s and early ’80s, American Hustle draws its inspiration from the real FBI ABSCAM operation that went after corrupt politicians. However, this is not a historical drama so much as a historical fantasy. The characters, loosely based on real people, are heavily fictionalized, and many aspects of the plot originated in the minds of writer Eric Warren Singer and co-writer Russell. As its opening card states, “Some of this actually happened.” The freedom that little, five-word statement gives Singer and Russell is tremendous – not bound by any responsibility to tell the truth or teach moral lessons, American Hustle‘s ambition is allowed to run essentially unchecked. And that’s a great thing indeed, considering the equally wild, uninhibited performances on display.
Russell is a pro at coaxing phenomenal performances out of his casts, but one of the most striking things about American Hustle is that he has each lead – Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner – playing a type of character that they have never played before. To say that everyone looks like they’re having a blast with the big hair and bigger personalities of their characters would be a massive understatement.
Bale, sporting a grotesque pot belly and nauseating comb-over, is nearly unrecognizable as Irving Rosenfeld, but his transformation goes far beyond the physical. A cunning con man, Irving’s mouth and mind both run at dizzying speeds, but this furious intellect doesn’t hide the heated emotions running underneath the surface. Despite appearances, he’s far from a joke, and Bale elicits a staggering amount of sympathy for a character so convincing in his lies that he finds it easier to pull the wool over his own eyes as well.
Just as effective is Adams, as Irving’s slinky chameleon of a partner, Sydney Prosser/Lady Edith Greensly. Like Irving, she has her sights set on the big leagues, and she’s willing to reinvent everything about herself in order to get there. However, under the fake British accent and plunging necklines, there’s something raw and real buried. Adams lets Sydney’s true face shine through just enough to satisfy, and her character is one of American Hustle‘s most deliciously complex as a result. As she whispers to Irving at one point, “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.” Here is a character so delectably intricate that you could spend days peeling back the layers – and, what’s more, you’ll want to.
Bradley Cooper almost steals the show as the hilariously permed, ambitious FBI Agent Richie DiMaso. After catching Irving and Sydney in a loan scam, he forces the pair to help him catch bigger fish, including Congress members and high-ranking politicians. Hotheaded and greedy, DiMaso is perhaps the most unlikeable character in American Hustle, but Cooper never loses the human element of his character, which makes his successes exhilarating and failures all the more brutal to watch. Part of the fun of American Hustle is untangling the love triangle at the film’s center, between Irving, Sydney and Richie. It’s unclear who’s scamming who, and to what end, and even the film’s conclusion leaves it unclear how much of their relationships are real and how much is just part of the con.
Jennifer Lawrence (perhaps miscast but still a joy to watch) gives a firecracker of a performance as Irving’s unhinged, self-deluded wife Rosalyn. As much a con artist as her husband, Rosalyn is loud, obnoxious, loathsome and deceptively wily. “She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” cracks Irving early on, and Lawrence’s portrayal holds up to that description. Whether she’s boozing, talking trash or furiously cleaning the house (to “Live and Let Die,” natch), you won’t be able to tear your eyes away. I felt at times like Rosalyn’s bawdy, brash personality distracted from the rest of the plot, which is a definite shame, but Lawrence is such a livewire that Russell’s clear reluctance to limit her role is entirely understandable.
Finally, Jeremy Renner plays New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito as a corrupt politician with a heart of gold, a thief so nobly motivated in his desire to clean up Atlantic City that you feel deeply for him when Irving and co. intentionally lead him down a very dangerous road. He leaves less of an impression than the rest of the leads, but Carmine’s passion for his family, his city and his friends shines through. The bit players are also phenomenally cast, from Louis C.K. to Alessandro Nivola to another Silver Linings Playbook actor whose appearance I won’t spoil here.
American Hustle is more an intentionally chaotic string of exciting, eye-catching performances than a movie, but Russell pulls the strings with such delicacy and vision that you end up just as caught up in its madness as its characters. It’s messy, overlong and (as I said before) somewhat opaque, but the bravura nature of the performances, the perfectly imagined setpieces, the glitzy costumes and even a thrilling, pounding soundtrack combine to make American Hustle one hell of a ride. Don’t miss it.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment gave American Hustle a top-of-the-line Blu-Ray transfer. The 1080p video transfer pops in all the right places, with extraordinary attention to detail in costuming and cinematography. For a film as lushly visual as American Hustle, a superior transfer was really a must, and SPHE didn’t let us down. There’s not a weak frame in the package – the color pallette is magnificently broad and vibrant, and image clarity is superior. The strength of the image alone puts American Hustle in contention with Gravity as an early Best Blu-Ray of the Year frontrunner.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also sublime, expertly mixing one of the most phenomenal soundtracks I’ve heard in a long while (The Bee Gees, Elton John and Duke Ellington are the stand-outs, but it’s an embarassment of riches all around) with Danny Elfman’s electrifying score and crisp, smooth dialogue. I have nothing but great things to say about SPHE’s work on the audio track.
In terms of special features, there’s not that much, which is a disappointment. American Hustle comes with:
- The Making of American Hustle
- Deleted and Extended Scenes
The “Making Of” featurette is a 16-minute venture that explores how Russell approached creating the film’s elaborate setting, the challenges actors faced in bringing their characters to life, and the main love triangle between Irving, Sydney and Richie. It’s pretty standard stuff, and I wish we could have seen some extended interviews with Russell and the cast members, because the points they make are surprisingly eloquent and interesting.
Over 20 minutes of deleted/extended scenes is the real bonus feature, however. At 138 minutes, American Hustle was already too long, so it’s understandable why Russell excised or trimmed the scenes included here, but there are some phenomenal acting moments to be found. The easy stand-out is “Cry British,” an extended scene with Bale and Adams’ characters that explores their relationship and shows some glorious work from Adams. There are also two versions of Lawrence’s memorable house-cleaning scene, one featuring an extended version of “Live and Let Die” and one set to Carlos Santana’s “Evil Ways.” She’s comic gold in both, and I actually preferred the “Evil Ways” version, so I was ecstatic to uncover that on the Blu-Ray. Other deleted/extended offerings include small but enjoyable scenes for Renner and Cooper.
American Hustle‘s Blu-Ray package is fantastic in every respect, from stunning video quality to solid audio to highly enjoyable deleted scenes. The film itself is a sprawling, absorbing character study that also captures the larger-than-life magic of its setting. Amazing performances all around more than make up for the weaknesses in coherence and plot that are present in the film. It certainly won’t (and doesn’t deserve to) become an American masterpiece, despite what some may say, but that doesn’t stop American Hustle from succeeding as a propulsively emotional, sumptuously realized period piece that eschews every stereotype of its genre. Let yourself get lost in it.
Messy, mesmerizing and ridiculously entertaining, American Hustle soars on the strengths of its performances, presentation and unchecked directorial verve.