Film Score: Danny Elfman Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner
American Hustle, dives head first into shag carpets, leisure suits and disco in setting its seriocomic caper in the “me decade,” and comes away with some genuine moments of “the real thing.” The story is loosely based on the Abscam case run by the FBI in the late seventies and early eighties that used a phony Arab front man to entice public figures into taking bribes. The film is something of a comedy, though still fairly serious in the way that it unfolds and the real draw is the acting. Amy Adams gives a bravura performance--as well as exposing a lot of cleavage--with Christian Bale in a beautifully costumed role in a fat suit and long hair. Jennifer Lawrence also does a tremendous job in a supporting role and almost certainly would have won an Oscar had the film not been up against 12 Years a Slave that year. In fact, one of the astounding things about the film is that it was nominated for ten Academy Awards and came away with nothing. It is something of a rambling story and the improvisational nature of the dialogue leaves something to be desired, but it is impressive for those standout performances.
The film begins with a sting operation. Christian Bale is in his hotel room putting fake hair on his bald head and doing a monstrous comb-over. He meets up with Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams in the room with the video monitors, and instantly they get into an argument. During the sting the mayor, Jeremy Renner, doesn’t take the bait and leaves, at which point Cooper forces Bale out to get him back. In a flashback Bale tells about how he broke windows so his dad could get business at his glass store, and how he met Amy Adams at a pool party in Long Island and bonded over Duke Ellington. She’s a stripper, and when she discovers his real business is cheating people out of fees for getting them loans they’ll never receive, she walks out, only to walk back in again with a British accent and doubling his take as his assistant, in more ways that one as they begin a sexual relationship. But trouble arrives in the form of Bradley Cooper, who says that he’s desperate for a loan. Bale smells trouble but when Adams takes his check, the world comes down on them. The bottom line is that in order for Bale to get Adams and himself off the hook, he has to use his talents to sting four other big fish and the two of them will walk.
The one quibble I have with the film, and it is a significant one, is the music. After watching the entire movie I still don’t know what the point of the music is. Russell and his people chose a great number of distinctive seventies pop songs to fill the soundtrack, but all of the music in the film--and I mean every song--is from 1974 and earlier. The film is set in 1978, and yet there is nothing from that year on the soundtrack. The most egregious example of this is in the disco scene, when Adams and Cooper go to a discotheque and the song playing in the club is “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Now, Thelma Houston released a version of that song in early 1977, and that would have been perfect for the scene. Instead, however, incomprehensibly, they played the original version by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes from 1975. I’m sure to most people a seventies song is a seventies song, but to set a film smack dab in the middle of the disco era and not use a single disco song on the soundtrack makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It’s too bad, because it’s the one element that rings absolutely false to anyone who lived in the era and paid any attention to popular music at all.
There are several narrative strings that are working here in David Russell’s screenplay. On the one hand there’s a bit of The Wrestler, with Amy Adams acting briefly as a stripper combined with the low class world of Bale. It turns out he is married to Jennifer Lawrence and has adopted her son, and he’s unwilling to leave her to run away with Adams which creates a lot of tension between the three of them. The relationship between Adams and Bale is reminiscent of any number of caper films--Matchstick Men comes to mind--in which the relationship itself seems like a con. But the most blatant comparison comes with Bradley Cooper’s character in his similarity to Gene Hackman in Get Shorty. Where he started out simply to get the couple to help him bag some bigger players, he quickly gets caught up in his own newfound sense of power and keeps biting off more and more. While Bale is urging him with all of his sincerity to slow down and scale back, Cooper can’t help himself. The ending, of course, is classic caper film material and one of the more satisfying elements of the production. American Hustle is not a film that is obviously great, but it does finish with a sense of satisfaction that seems impressive in retrospect.