David O. Russell has been on a roll lately and with that track record comes high expectations. With his latest film "American Hustle", he's working from intriguing material and a superb cast. It obviously has the elements to make a great film, but does it live up to his high standard?
"American Hustle" is loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s/early 80s, which was an elaborate con used to indict corrupt politicians in New Jersey. The operation was carried out by a network of hustlers, including a master con artist (Christian Bale), his beautiful faux-British partner (Amy Adams) and an undercover FBI agent (Bradley Cooper). As with his previous films, these are all larger-than-life characters played by a cast of frequent collaborators.
The film has been labelled "Scorsese-esque", due to similarities to his 90s output of semi-biographical gangster flicks. The narrative style and mafia elements are indeed reminiscent of "Goodfellas" and "Casino". However, this film is so tame in comparison that it's hard for me to agree with those who claim that this is a mere "copy and paste". What we see in this film is still very much in line with the rest of Russell's filmography. Namely, it's an off-kilter character-driven dramedy.
Much like his detours into Boston ("The Fighter") and Philadelphia ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Russell excels at capturing a sense of time and place. The fashion and music are equally as important as the human characters. Whether it be Bradley Cooper's perm or groovy disco dancing, it's all a purposeful part of Russell's vision.
The great thing about working with familiar actors is that they easily understand this vision. That's definitely the case here, as the ensemble all deliver fine performances. From the trio of main characters, Cooper and Bale are the standouts. Cooper perhaps had a better role in "Silver Linings Playbook" last year, but this is his most skilled performance. He's never been so completely so assured with his technique, a far cry from his early career. Slightly more impressive is the always reliable Christian Bale. He is the realist anchor of the film, which is no easy task considering his character's slightly goofy appearance (that combover!). Unfortunately, Amy Adams doesn't fare as well. She gives a strong performance but she's hindered by a laughably imperfect British accent. Of course, the nature of the role requires this bad accent, but I got the impression that it caused her to struggle to fully inhabit the character. Her female co-star Jennifer Lawrence had no such trouble however, delivering a scene-stealing, vivacious performance as Bale's neglected wife. Also notable is Jeremy Renner, who plays one of the politicians being tricked into a false investment. It's truly outstanding work by all, with Cooper, Bale and Lawrence all having a viable claim for "best in show".
Yet despite the ace directing work and dazzling ensemble, there's something missing in the script department. From a macro-level, the film has a great story, but the plot specifics lack a certain "je ne sais quoi". Maybe it could have used more emotion or the stakes could have been higher. It's hard to tell. One thing's for sure though, I was never bored, even when I wasn't entirely sure of what was going on. When all is said and done, that's almost enough for me. I was entertained from start to finish and I was always invested in the characters. "American Hustle" doesn't quite match up to David O. Russell's own high standards, but it's still a compelling piece of filmmaking.
As with his last two films, "American Hustle" is right in the thick of the Oscar race. First, I expect the cast to garner at least one nomination. Lawrence seems like a lock for Best Supporting Actress and Cooper has a strong chance as well for Best Supporting Actor. As we've known all year, Best Actor is a tight category so Bale will have a tough time making that lineup. He's certainly in contention though, assuming the Academy loves the film as much as we expect. Other nominations are likely to come in Best Original Screenplay, Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Costume Design.
The film doesn't immediately cry out for a Best Editing nomination, but considering the fact that "Silver Lining Playbook" was cited there, a nod in this category is also a strong possibility. Of course, some of these will be mere "coattail" nominations for the all-important nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. I don't think Sony Pictures has anything to worry about in that regard, as the precursor awards indicate major heat for this film. I'm not fully convinced that the film has what it takes to go all the way in those top categories, but you can expect it to put up a good fight. "Gravity" and "12 Years A Slave" better watch out!