Film review: Despite an A-list cast, American Hustle stumbles

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Director David O. Russell reunites with Bradley Cooper (left) and Christian Bale for the ’70s con artist flick, American Hustle. Director David O. Russell reunites with Bradley Cooper (left) and Christian Bale for the ’70s con artist flick, American Hustle.

American Hustle is, in some circles, being touted as a masterpiece. It’s easy to see why. Good cast (Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner). Respected director (David O. Russell, who had a major hit with Cooper and Lawrence and Silver Linings Playbook). And crime in the 1970s: Wide ties! Bad hair! Good music!

Unfortunately, American Hustle is no masterpiece. It’s a bore. It’s a fictionalized account of Abscam, a late 1970s, early 1980s FBI sting that, in real life, resulted in convictions for about a half-dozen members of Congress (including a senator). Great. Here in the movies, it’s an excuse for Russell to get together with his pals—all the stars with names above the title have worked with Russell before, save Renner—and have their characters shout at each other while the camera moves quickly and often.

It’s exhausting. There are no stakes. There are wigs and braless dresses and fat suits and perms. There is nothing resembling a compelling character or story.

American Hustle has the bones of a good movie. Bale (doing a ham-fisted Robert De Niro-lite, if two such opposing choices can live within one performance) is Irving Rosenfeld, a Bronx-born dry cleaner owner and con man who scams dopes into giving him money with false promises of providing big loans. He’s joined by Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a con woman who fakes an English accent and lures the dopes with her good looks.

Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is a low-level FBI agent who’s on to Sydney’s game. He arrests her. In order to avoid prison, she agrees to help Richie set up a sting. She gets Rosenfeld to help. He and Richie hate each other. Shouting ensues!

Then there’s Lawrence. In a classic case of miscasting, she’s a mid-30s shrew of a housewife, married to Rosenfeld and determined to make his life difficult. And despite her miscasting, she’s good—Lawrence has the talent—but there’s just nothing believable about her marriage to Rosenfeld, her jealousy of Sydney, and the way she plays him to get what she wants.

Oh, and Renner is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. He’s modeled, sort of, on then-mayor Angelo Errichetti, whom he looks nothing like. But he does some shouting (a Russell mainstay).

Maybe American Hustle is itself a hustle. Maybe the filmmakers, including Russell and co-writer Eric Singer, got together and said, “Hey, we’ll do this movie with big stars. And then we won’t give them anything to do. But we’ll move the camera a lot and we’ll have them scream at the tops of their lungs, and everyone will think we made art.”

That’s a big maybe; the screenplay’s authors have an “and” between their names, indicating they didn’t collaborate. Maybe Russell conned himself into thinking he made a great movie. In reality, it’s dull. There are entire scenes when Adams stands there with nothing to do. And it also has a garish trick ending that’s straight from the school of lazy plotting.

One bright note: Comedian Louis C.K. plays Cooper’s haggard boss, and he’s excellent. He’s the one person not in on the joke, playing his character straight and hitting the right tone.

Skip American Hustle. Re-watch Goodfellas.

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