‘American Hustle’ review: Messy plot, memorable characters

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The all-star cast of American Hustle: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence
The all-star cast of American Hustle: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence

Movie synopsis

A fictional retelling of the Abscam scandal of the late ’70s/early ’80s, Christian Bale and Amy Adams play Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, a pair of brilliant con artists and lovers roped into a FBI sting operation by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) targeting corrupt politicians and powerbrokers — in particular, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Complicating things along the way is Irving’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who could bring down the operation with her carelessness.

American Hustle review in a nutshell

A flashy film that’s more about its characters than the plot.

Would I recommend you watch it?

It depends on your appetite for a movie that’s more flash than substance. And at a 138-min runtime, it tests your patience with a plot that explores all tangents, whether relevant or not. If you really like the actors though, they’re great in it and will be worth your time.

Click here to jump to the bottom for where you can watch American Hustle.

Or continue reading for a full review with some spoilers.

Full review of American Hustle (with some spoilers)

When a movie spends its first three minutes on Christian Bale carefully arranging his sparse hair into a comb over, with his shirt unbuttoned to show off a paunchy stomach, you know somehow that plot isn’t its biggest concern. American Hustle will leave you with a lasting impression of its starry cast of larger-than-life characters in flamboyant trappings of questionable ’70s style. Any efforts to recall the preposterous and muddled plot, though, may leave you with a sense of “Huh, what just happened?”

'American Hustle' review: Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) and Bradley Cooper (FBI agent Richie DiMaso) in American Hustle
Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) and Bradley Cooper (FBI agent Richie DiMaso) in American Hustle

The film is so ludicrous that you are hard-pressed to believe its claim at the start that “Some of this actually happened”. (A sheik is involved, and I’m still not sure why.) However, its sin lies more in a story too messily told to make any real sense of. The amplified backdrop of the ’70s helps/hinders too: the kaleidoscopic palette of the era, over-the-top hairstyles and revealing costumes that are characters in their own right makes it hard to take the movie seriously. (The ample boob that Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence flash is a constant distraction that makes you spend half the time wondering if they’re a second away from an accidental nip-slip.)

What you’re left to focus on are its extravagant characters, so neurotic they almost seem to be parodies of themselves. Christian Bale — who, incredulously, is modelled after the real con artist Melvin Weinberg — is great as always, disappearing into his character with the aid of that ridiculous comb over and potbelly. Bradley Cooper’s maniacal FBI agent recalls his performance in Silver Linings Playbook — causing you to wonder how on earth he qualified to be an FBI agent actually — and in one memorable scene, goes off the deep end on his boss (Louis C.K., who plays the straight man to Bradley Cooper’s wild one, thereby providing some of the best comic moments in the film).

Jeremy Renner is arguably the most balanced person in the film as the passionate mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito, whose efforts to improve his community make him the unwitting target of the sting operation. He’s so generous in opening his heart to Bale’s Irving, and woefully naive about being set up, that it incurs Irving’s guilt in his role in the operation and our sympathies, and causes him to become the real tragic figure in the film. Unfortunately, by nature of such an ostentatious film, his magnanimous portrayal cannot help but be overshadowed by the theatrics of all the other characters.

Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito) and Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld) in American Hustle
Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito) and Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld) in American Hustle

But the real stars of the film are its women. Amy Adams is gorgeous and magnetic as Irving’s partner, Sydney — though her English accent is uneven for someone who poses as a British aristocrat half the time as part of the con. Even when stripping down the layers of that confident facade to reveal a woman full of insecurities about her ability to be loved — seen from her jealousy of Rosalyn, and subsequent playing of both Irving and Richie in a manipulative love triangle — she is arresting in her beauty and vulnerability.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jennifer Lawrence’s character, who is so absurd and erratic with a penchant for screwing things up for her husband that in the hands of a less capable actress, she could have been extremely annoying. As it is, I found her comical.

Witness the scene where Irving confronts Rosalyn about getting him in trouble with the mafia by blabbing about him possibly working for the feds — which ends with him thanking her for it (though it’s unclear if he means it truly or sarcastically). She switches from upset and emotional to manipulative and self-righteous in that scene, that you’re taken aback at her audaciousness, but you don’t question it. (How could you, when she has shown throughout the entire film that that’s exactly who she is?) And like in Silver Linings Playbook, you’ll be able to ignore the age gap between Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, because you can barely tell it is there, and it doesn’t matter.

Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld) and Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) confront each other in American Hustle
Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld) and Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser) confront each other in American Hustle

So yes, the film is funny, especially in its odd beats of humour. (The shot of Carmine’s numerous children on the stairwell — including a black kid, whom he adopted — overhearing the news that he is going to jail is unexpectedly amusing.) The characters are striking and the best part. Its costume and production design will probably win awards. But best film of the year, as some critics’ groups have proclaimed? Nope. It shouldn’t even be nominated for that honour.

Where to watch American Hustle

Streaming services: American Hustle is on Catchplay (Singapore). It’s not on Netflix Singapore or US, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu or any other streaming services.

Rent/Buy: Get it on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Microsoft, FandangoNOW, Redbox, Catchplay (Singapore)

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