The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. This great quote, attributed to Aristotle and expounded on for centuries thereafter, is often used in critiquing film. American Hustle, however, is a great example of the sum of it’s parts being greater than the whole. On the surface, American Hustle has all the characteristics of a great movie: a talented director, five terrifically gifted actors, a too-good-to-be-true story, an excellent score, and sharp writing. Interestingly, these pieces, while executed well individually, don’t add up to a truly masterful film. It’s much like a disappointing five course meal, where each dish is executed perfectly, yet the experience as a whole seem disconnected and muddled.
While still maintaining his playful style, director David O. Russell has lately abandoned the lighter stories that his earlier films contained and has instead focused on slightly darker material. This change has led to great success, with his last two films (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) being big successes both critically and comercially. With American Hustle,Divid O. Russell again delves into darker material, but not without imbuing his trademark style of humor and wit that is often found in his earlier films. As in the past, the film is filled with larger-than-life caricatures that are so absurd, it’s hard not to like them. This also, in effect, is what makes the film so hard to take seriously- which can be both good and bad. As the film opens, a title card states ‘some of this actually happened’, a playful way of acknowledging that some of the movie is based on reality, but also how absurd it all is. It’s this absurdity that hurts the film- for all it’s entertainment value, the film doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously.
Christian Bale plays Irvin Rosenfeld, a con artist, who with the help of his lover, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), con people of their money. Irvin is married, however, to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who is too depressed and inebriated to function outside of the house. Afraid to lose his son, Irvin maintains his marriage while balancing his relationship with Sydney. It isn’t until Irvin and Sydney are caught selling fake loans, that the two of them get pulled into helping take down Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. But as the ego of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) continues to swell with the idea of catching bigger and bigger players with his sting operation, the plan slowly starts unraveling at each turn. The whole film is filled with caricatures, both ridiculous and appealing. Even the smaller roles are played with an unnatural zaniness, such as Louis C. K.’s Stoddard Thorsen. It lends well to great laughs, but it also pulls one out of what is happening, rather than drawing you in.
Both Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence do a great job of transcending the absurdity of their characters. Sporting a Trump-like combover and beer belly, it’s easy to forget that it’s Christian Bale underneath it all. As Sydney says in the film, despite his appearances, there’s a charm to him as well as the confidence he exudes. This charm is apparent in Bale’s performance as well, as he is one of the few relatable characters. Lawrence as well elevates her character’s flaws into something that is both tragic and endearing- eliciting both laughs and disgust in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams seem to be going for broke, as their performances seem forced and unnatural. Adams is a talented actor for sure, but much of the time it seemed like she was playing more of a caricature than her character- and consequently pulling the viewer out of the film. While Bale and Lawrence were Irvin and Rosalyn, Adams and Cooper were playing Sydney and Richie. Their performance were never as convincing. Still, they brought much to enjoy, and overall the performances were entertaining, if not convincing.
For all the talent David O. Russell displays, it’s a shame that he couldn’t connect all the pieces in a masterful way. The direction seemed to focus on style more than substance, and with such a ridiculous story, talented actors, and witty script, the end result is somewhat disappointing. That’s not to say the film is a failure, but with so much talent involved, it’s surprising to see it not be a resounding success.