While various critics groups have already chimed in with their “best films of 2013” lists (including a pair that yours truly has had the honor of partaking in), a handful of big time players have yet to really see the light of day when it comes to the general public. With films like The Wolf Of Wall Street and Her still awaiting a real release and others like the brilliant and Homer-esque Inside Llewyn Davis only now making their way into a bigger number of markets, one of the more intriguing films from this huge end of the year crop is doing the same thing.
Expanding into wide release this weekend is the newest film from beloved filmmaker David O. Russell, an ensemble comedy entitled American Hustle. Based on a now infamous FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM, Russell’s latest film stars Christian Bale as a brilliant con-man who, after getting caught in a con along with his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), is forced to join forces with the feds in order to snag a series of corrupt political figures, including the seemingly stand up mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). However, when things grow larger and more unwieldy, things begin to go south in what is one of the more entertaining, if ultimately forgettable, films of this year’s fall slate.
Re-teaming Russell with his two Silver Linings Playbook leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, these two, in relatively supporting roles (Cooper is ostensibly a third lead, but again, the story isn’t necessarily about him) give the film’s real standout performances. Lawrence takes that uncanny energy found within Playbook and brings along with it this sense of heartbreaking sadness that breathes real life into what would otherwise be a sterile and forgettable crime romp. Her performance can go from being almost Rowlands-esque in her unkempt energy to something far more troubling at the drop of a dime, take for instance her characters real breaking point, a pair of moments following a confrontation with Amy Adams’ character in the film’s third act. Adams herself is also solid here, but is let down by a script that doesn’t really know what to do with her other than as a romantic thread between the two lead men, both of whom are playing cinematic long ball and loving every minute of it. Cooper is a real joy to watch, and his chemistry with Bale is tactile and needs to be mined for more work down the line. Renner is the unsung gem here, however, giving the film’s most nuanced performance, and a subdued bit of real dramatic acting amongst a foursome unwilling to soften their collective voices.
It’s Russell that seems to be the one letting the project down. Directorially, the film is serviceable. Russell’s usual energy is found within much of the film, and there are a handful of truly inspired sequences. Be it the previously mentioned sequence involving the film’s two main women in a bathroom or a genuinely entrancing club sequence, the film ultimately overstays its welcome in its roughly 135 minute runtime. Feeling more along the lines of a film twice that length, it’s the picture’s cliché-riddled screenplay, co-written by Russell and Eric Singer, that makes the film drag. Never finding a way to get above either the faux-Scorsese comparisons (of which many have been made, and rightly so) or the standard narrative structure, the film says what it has to about the varied themes it discusses but without saying much new. A film about redemption and the different hues of gray that the world runs on, the film has no issue stating its ideas verbally, but in a way so oppressively bland that it becomes an enjoyable film to watch in the moment, but ultimately one that joins your popcorn bucket in the trash can as you toss it away walking out of your megaplex.
Far from being a “bad” picture, or even a mediocre one given the great performances that elevate the standard narrative material, Russell’s film just feels as though we’ve all seen it before. That all said, the aforementioned performances are so great, almost uniformly so, that American Hustle proves Russell as one of today’s great actor directors. Names like Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper have truly never been better than they are here, and once again Jeremy Renner proves that while he may be a blank faced action hero in films like The Avengers, there is still a truly great thespian behind those eyes of his, all as part of one of the year’s great ensembles. It’s just too bad it couldn’t have been in service of a more interesting and emotionally involving motion picture.