American Hustle, the latest character study from writer-director David O. Russell, is an experiment of sorts, populated by an idealistic mayor, an obnoxious wife, a determined FBI agent and two clever con artists in New Jersey during the FBI Abscam scandal. The problem with Russell's experiment is that it bubbles and changes colors but is missing the big explosion at the end. Rather than culminating in an exciting finale, the tension abruptly diffuses.
Con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are busted and given an ultimatum by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The deal is simple: If they use their skills to help Richie catch four criminals, he will let them go. The deal becomes more complicated when Richie starts targeting politicians such as Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Irving's strained relationship with his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), grows worse as he works with Richie and indulges in a romance with Sydney.
The script by Eric Singer and Russell is less about cons and deceit than the film's title and trailer would suggest. The material receives the usual Russell treatment, in which the film revolves around interactions and relationships. Russell has been quoted as saying to Bale on set, "Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that's it." Allegedly, the film's stars had many opportunities to improvise.
One advantage of Russell's process is how rich his characters are and how natural their interactions become. Russell constantly asks, "How would these people interact in this situation if this thing went horribly wrong?" Unfortunately, the film is missing a satisfying climax, verging on chaos and approaching tragedy at times but never wholeheartedly embracing them for an exhilarating finish. Only a couple of the characters change at all, and none of them has to pay the price for past mistakes.
While the story is lacking, Russell is skilled at cultivating good performances from his actors. Moving camera work and a combination of jazz and rock tunes from the '70s also add energy to the film, and Russell's choices will likely earn him a nomination for Best Director at this year's Academy Awards.
The acting is fantastic. Bale committed to his role as usual, gaining more than 40 pounds and injuring his back, the commitment evident in his performance. Adams gives one of her strongest performances to date, as do Cooper and Renner. Lawrence is particularly phenomenal, abandoning her own persona fully and transforming into an utterly unlikable character. She will probably receive her third Academy Award nomination and could very easily win Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her second time.
American Hustle is an excellent character study, but it had potential to be much more. The characters' harrowing situation suggests either monumental success or catastrophic failure, so the ending feels anticlimactic when neither occurs.
Mark Mukherjee is tb-two* movie critic and a senior at King High.
Album review: American Hustle
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams
Runtime: 138 min.
Score: 3/5 asterisks