Last year, when Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver were nominated for Academy Awards in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, it was the first time all four acting categories were represented in a single film since 1981's Reds. Yet it's entirely possible that American Hustle, the latest in a string of Russell movies with award-season clout, may accomplish the same feat. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are all part of the conversation for their impressive turns in this '70s-era heist film. The movie opens area-wide on Friday.
Bale is conman Irving Rosenfeld. He's got a paunch, an elaborate comb-over and a thriving small-time hustle with his partner, a seductress who pretends to be a Brit with connections to the banking industry named Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). When they get busted by the ambitious, quick-tempered FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they're forced to orchestrate a con against the New Jersey political elite, symbolized by the pompadour-ed family man mayor of Newark Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and his mafia cohorts. Meantime, Rosenfeld's disgruntled wife (Lawrence) accidentally conspires to tear the operation apart because she just wants some old-fashioned affection.
Know this: People will adore American Hustle. Moviegoers of all stripes — critics included — will be swept away by the disco-era fun, the quick wit of the script, and the nonstop excitement that burbles forth organically when you assemble a cast of actors this talented and preposterously costumed. It's easy to enjoy, and you should definitely see it.
That said, there's something hollow at the core of this film, though the surface is decadent and superb. Each character here, in his or her prescribed role, has the singular desire and depth to carry a film individually. The cop wants recognition; the conman wants order; the conman's wife wants attention; the conman's partner wants the conman. And the mayor, of course, wants a casino, which brings all these damaged folks to congress. And you realize, somewhere within the film's second act, that as fun as they all are to watch interact — many of the scenes are hilarious — you're not sure whose side you're on. The "who's conning whom?" trickery works very well until you don't care who ends up on top.
In Silver Linings Playbook, just for direct comparison, you felt a desperate sympathy for the broken characters. You wanted to see them succeed in the small tasks they had appointed for themselves. You wanted, like crazy, for them to be happy. There was a deeper sense of urgency and much more at stake in the question of whether or not a man would be on time for a dance rehearsal in Silver Linings than there is in any of the various meetings with senators and mob bosses and FBI agents in American Hustle.
Ultimately — one final quibble — the success of a heist movie is, if not equivalent, then certainly linked to the thrill and novelty of the actual heist. Here, the final con's climax and payoff is secondary to the mini-dramas among the players. There's no complex caper choreography or dynamite finale of the Ocean's 11 ilk.
And that's okay. This is all written with the precursor that the film is very, very good. It's just that the sum of American Hustle is nowhere near as splendid as the sum of Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.