Russell has been quoted as saying he’s more concerned about character than plot, and American Hustle offers character in spades. The first sight we have of Christian Bale’s con man Irving Rosenfeld is of him meticulously applying a hair piece and styling his hair to hide a conspicuous bald spot. That’s the film in a nutshell: hiding the reality, presenting yourself as something other than what you really are, not necessarily for gain, but because the reality is so depressing. Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser concocts a British alter ego partly to help Rosenfeld con investors, but also because this other identity is everything Sydney isn’t. Rosenfeld’s wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, maintains their facade of a marriage because she wants to feel like somebody loves her, even if she knows he’s being unfaithful. And Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent longs to make more of a difference than busting petty con men, but eventually becomes completely wrapped up in the con himself. Every one of them isn’t happy with the stark reality, and so constructs some kind of elaborate fantasy to replace it. Some acknowledge the fantasy, some are blind to it, but all either eventually grow tired of or are ultimately undone by their pretenses. In the end, mundane real life wins out, for better or worse.
But while it might seem like this is the stuff of tragedy, the film mines plenty of humor from its characters and their obliviousness to the sometimes obvious nature of their attempted deceptions. It’s a really funny film, not in some kind of slapstick or over-the-top way, but via character, via the deluded reactions of people who think they’re the epitome of calm confidence when they’re really nothing of the sort. But it’s in this humor that the film’s seams begin to show. There’s an inconsistent tone at work here. We seem to be meant to laugh at these characters, but then we’re swung towards wanting to feel sympathy towards them at certain moments. So were we wrong to laugh? Are they too comical to sympathize with? The film wants it both ways, where taking a firm stand in either direction would have made a much stronger statement.
The comparisons to Martin Scorsese — and GoodFellas in particular — have been hovering over this film since its first trailer appeared, and early on, they’re totally justified. There’s the in media res beginning, the lead character narration, the flashback to that character’s childhood, all accompanied by an expertly selected period soundtrack. Russell veers away from it. Not that the film doesn’t maintain its debt to Scorsese — the big moments still have the perfect 70s song attached to them — but it’s much less overt as the film goes on. What’s curiously lacking from Scorsese’s playbook though is the sense of energy. While Scorsese’s films have this constant momentum to them, American Hustle moves in fits and starts, one moment enthralling and funny, the next meandering around trying to figure out what it’s about. And that’s where Russell’s disregard for plot hinders things. He allowed his cast to improvise, and while that results in some really strong comedic moments, it lets the film get away from whatever point it is it’s trying to deliver. Russell’s given his horse free rein with no way of making sure it doesn’t get lost off the path. So while American Hustle is filled with bravura moments, those moments aren’t allowed to come together into something cohesive. We’re looking through someone’s photo albums, jumping from this recollection to the next, so that we know the chronology, but it never feels like a story.
Still, those moments and the cast’s performance in them make this a worthwhile view. It’s just frustrating that Russell wasn’t able to make a strong comment when he had such a meaty theme staring him in the face. The result is a film that’s more enjoyable than compelling, more diverting than riveting. Maybe Russell needs to reconsider his stance on the importance of plot. He’s got the character part down, but this film desperately needs the identity its characters are searching for.