American Hustle opens with a balding, rotund, middle-aged man distastefully gluing a toupée to his head. You can taste the plaster fumes as little rivulets drip down his scalp. Then he takes his remaining strands of hair and pulls them over the furry piece now attached to his skin. The scene is uncomfortable, synthetic, difficult to watch. It is a good primer for the rest of the film.
That man, Irving, is played by Christian Bale, and he is the only human character in American Hustle. He has a conscience buried beneath his sleazy exterior, and he is shown to be a family man at heart. His oscillation between these two extremes is gradual and moving. Unfortunately, the people that surround him do not evolve or change. They manifest their desires in hyperbolic expression. From Bradley Cooper as the unbalanced Agent Richie DiMaso to Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, the entire cast seems to revel in the irrational. Not a single character has any genuinely human qualities.
Rosalyn is a mother, but we know this because are told and not because we are shown. We never actually see her mothering. Likewise, we are introduced to an unstable Agent DiMaso whose actions are erratic and, as far as we know, unwarranted. It is eventually revealed that he took on Irving’s criminal case because he was an FBI pencil pusher desperate for a job in the field. Unfortunately, this is also conveyed through expositional dialogue.
Amy Adams is Irving’s lover and con artist partner, Sydney. She also isn’t given any demonstrable impetus for her fickle accent-tinged behavior. And for what little role Jeremy Renner has in the film, his perfect do-gooder schtick feels contrived and implausible. Simply saying these characters have human qualities isn’t enough. These traits must be apparent if we are to empathize with their struggles. If not, the result is a group of characters with whom we simply cannot relate; they are cardboard cutouts, ripe for spectacle and not much else.
The blame for shallow, cartoon-like characterization in American Hustle does not lie at the feet of the actors. Lawrence gives the Rosalyn as much dysfunctional depth as one could reasonably expect, and Cooper shines as he delivers gatling gun dialogue. Both have excellent, often hilarious sparring matches with Bale.
Adams is also fine, although she lacks the crutch of humorous respite from which Cooper and Lawrence both benefit. Through no fault of her own, her scenes tend to be more dramatic than funny. This does not work to her advantage in what is a mostly emotionless film. The supporting cast also stands tall beside the leads; a particularly amusing dynamic blossoms between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (Louis C.K.), and remains one of the standout storylines in the movie.
The problem with the characters in American Hustle doesn’t lie in its direction, either. David O. Russell uses clever camera work to keep the film moving and under his hand his star team from Silver Linings Playbook all give fantastic repeat performances. Still, his guidance doesn’t solve every problem. The film lacks focus. The main character appears to be Irving, confirmed by the opening and closing scenes, but Russell jumps between narrative threads so much it becomes difficult to track or care about the central premise. The story isn’t complicated per se, but it convolutes itself with one too many disparate character moments.
The blame for the mostly two-dimensional ensemble, it turns out, lies with the script. Eric Singer co-wrote the film with Russell and neither of them can keep the film on track. Their weak characterizations lead to a hodgepodge of events I never cared about. I was uninterested in whether Irving or Sydney would get away with their crimes. Even though Irving did eventually earn my sympathy, I was mostly nonplussed with his conman antics. In fact, I just generally didn’t care about anyone: not Richie’s desperate pull for the top of the bureaucratic ladder, nor Rosalyn’s spousal troubles with Irving.
Something magical happens in the first five minutes of American Hustle. Just after Irving (Bale) perfects his awful combover, he leaves the dresser mirror and meets Sydney (Adams) in what appears to be a hotel living room. Richie (Cooper) barges in behind her, complete with luscious, impossibly tight curls. The three of them snap at one another and the room burns with energy. Instantly the relationship between Richie, Sydney, and Irving is clear. It is a brilliant way to establish the film.
I kept waiting to see that life reinvigorate the story once again. That never happens. American Hustle is a few scenes too long and a few true characters too short. The result is a passable, if unremarkable, ensemble showcase. To paraphrase a certain hobbit, it is thin. Like hair spread over too much head.
Verdict: Movie Meh