A day after scoring Best Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence) from the New York Film Critics Circle, David O. Russell’s American Hustle sees its first round of reviews. Todd Gilchrist, who gives it a B+ at the Playlist, sets it up for us nicely:
Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a low-level con man who teams up professionally—and romantically—with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to hustle suckers out of $5,000 at a time. The duo eventually attracts the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who demands their help ensnaring corrupt New Jersey powerbrokers in exchange for their freedom. Eventually setting his sights on Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), DiMaso instructs Rosenfeld to ingratiate himself with the politician, even as he finds himself growing close to Sydney. But after Rosenfeld decides to bring along his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) in order to maintain the veneer of normalcy, the con man’s relationship with Sydney begins to deteriorate even as his unpredictable wife threatens to reveal his true motives to Polito, not to mention the mobsters DiMaso hopes to apprehend with the politician’s arrest.
“The really important things are happening right before our eyes,” notes John Anderson at Thompson on Hollywood: “Jennifer Lawrence becoming the most potent synthesis of comedy and feline sexuality to hit the screen for half a century. Amy Adams coming in a close second. And Russell managing to make a movie steeped in cultural nostalgia that also sneers at the notion that the past is past. There are men in this movie, too. But all the plot points about politics, mobsters and FBI stings seem like afterthoughts to the women and sex that permeate every frame of the film.”
“Formally ostentatious and unrepentantly messy, the film manages to implicitly convey the overdriven, coked-up confusion that many ’70s period pieces make painfully overt,” writes Jesse Cataldo at Slant. “Every overstated camera swoop and nonsensical body-part zoom functions as both a further expression of directorial agitation and yet another red herring, slapping a visual analogue onto a story already loaded with false clues, double-dealing, and outright lies. Originally titled American Bullshit, the film ends up as a compulsive, often intensely obvious study of unbalanced personalities, all engaged in some kind of desperate masquerade, all caught up in the frantic push and pull between chaos and control.”
“You’ve seen smoother, more elegant con movies than American Hustle,” Justin Chang assures us in Variety, “but probably none quite so big-hearted or so rudely, insistently entertaining.” This “sprawling fictionalized account of the notorious Abscam case is less a dramatic FBI procedural than a human comedy writ large, ringing a series of screwball variations on themes of duplicity and paranoia against a dazzling ’70s backdrop. Deliriously funny and brilliantly acted by a cast of Russell returnees, the film is also overlong, undisciplined and absent the sort of emotional payoff that made Silver Linings Playbook so satisfying.”
“The vicarious enjoyment of being bad that American Hustle provides gives it a vague kinship with Goodfellas,” writes David Rooney for the Hollywood Reporter, “while its buoyant narrative energy and disco-era setting recall Boogie Nights. Dexterously plotted and laced with choice dialogue, the film is a crime drama infused with the spirit of a caper comedy, its frisky insouciance at times not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake.”
“With his pathetically elaborate comb-over and toupee, Irving clearly aspires to a level of sophistication he doesn’t possess, while Sydney (with her stunningly revealing outfits) imagines herself to be far classier than she really is,” writes Tim Grierson for Screen Daily. “Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) fancies herself a wise old soul even if she’s a bit of a dingbat… Flaunting plenty of sass and curvy sensuality, Rosalyn is all attitude, but impressively Lawrence transcends clichés for a funny, assured performance.”
She’s “a booze-guzzling, hot-tempered troublemaker who one-ups Melissa Leo in The Fighter as the most spectacular female presence in the pantheon of Russell’s creations,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Described by Rosenfeld as ‘the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,’ Rosalyn has a near-psychotic demeanor that makes everyone around her look largely restrained, and in this movie, that’s saying something…. Overstatement is everything in American Hustle.”
For Erik Davis at Movies.com, “it’s about figuring out where to draw the line when it comes to success. How many people do you screw over? How many lies do you need to tell? How many hearts will you need to break in order to become everything you’ve ever wanted to be? American Hustle is like a cautionary tale for idiots. Here’s what not to do in order to get ahead.”
Robert Ito profiles Amy Adams for the New York Times.
Updates, 12/6: “Reveling in its ’70s milieu and in the eternal abrasion of sexy women and covetous men, American Hustle is an urban eruption of flat-out fun—the sharpest, most exhilarating comedy in years.” So says Time‘s Richard Corliss.
“It blends the wiseguy voiceover nostalgia of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with the cheeky imposture of George Roy Hill’s The Sting, and the headbutting and faintly surreal non-sequiturs in the dialogue have a little of David Mamet,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “But there is also something unmistakably Russell-esque in the neurotic, shrill and often very funny drama: a kind of neo-noir farce. Russell distills his own toxic kind of nitrous oxide and pipes it into the cinema.”
Updates, 12/20: “Never mind the cocaine,” begins Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “When I remember the 1970s, I think of roller disco: dense crowds of people jacked high off the floor on their four-wheeled boots, zooming, teetering, slipping in and out of control as they showed off for one another. That’s the dizzying sensation that David O. Russell keeps spinning you into in his deliriously enjoyable American Hustle… Like that other time-traveler to the 1970s, Paul Thomas Anderson, Russell is a big, expressive moviemaker who seems willing to try anything. Unlike Anderson, he’s even willing to swerve a little out of control, roller-disco style.”
In Reverse Shot, Adam Nayman argues that “American Hustle is basically a less exotic, polyester-clad doppelganger for Argo—a lushly produced, seventies-inflected crowd-pleaser about a showbiz-style sting…. Working with his largest budget and biggest-name cast to date, Russell takes the opportunity to cross-pollinate genres (caper-flick, period piece, docudrama) and inventory influences (Scorsese, Altman, Wilder), as well as to wreak playful havoc with history…. Anyone who’s ever wondered whether the perennially sprung, lunatic quality of Russell’s characters was a case of authorial self-deprecation or self-flattery will find a pretty definitive answer here: American Hustle is the work of somebody angling to be received a virtuoso outlaw sweetheart—just like the smooth operators onscreen.”
Russell, “more than any other contemporary American filmmaker, has reinvigorated screwball comedy, partly by insisting that men and women talk to one another,” counters Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “To that end, that chatter, written by Mr. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, is fast, dirty, intemperate, hilarious and largely in service to the art of the con.”
Writing for Artforum, Melissa Anderson admires “Russell’s magnanimity toward his characters, an equable, never cloying embrace of their imperfections.”
“I believe Hustle is winning over so many is because it rather overtly flatters its audience,” writes Glenn Kenny. “It likely sounds pat to say that the people going gaga over American Hustle have fallen for some kind of con, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“To these eyes,” writes Scott Foundas for Film Comment, “both The Fighter and the even more successful (commercially) Silver Linings felt, for all their respective merits, a bit too carefully engineered for mass adoration, with the acerbic, take-no-prisoners sensibility of Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, and Huckabees dialed down in favor of Oscar-baiting sentimentality…. But maybe Russell needed to make those movies to be in a position where he could do Hustle on his own exhilarating terms. Whatever the case, it’s a feast of a movie—an uncorked entertainment in which every scene trembles with energy and actorly invention.”
It’s “a series of astonishments,” finds the New Yorker‘s David Denby. “We seem to have stepped into the magical sphere—Shakespeare rules over it and Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are denizens—where profound human foolishness becomes a form of grace.”
“Constructed with tremendous cinematic verve and stacking terrific performances one atop another like logs beside the Yuletide hearth, David O. Russell’s latest will strike many people as the best Scorsese movie since Goodfellas—and without doubt the best not actually directed by Martin Scorsese.” Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir also posts a backgrounder on the Abscam scandal.
“The true story of Abscam and its aftermath is significantly different—sadder and, in many ways, crazier—than Russell’s freewheeling remix,” grants Slate‘s Dana Stevens. “But it’s clear the director didn’t set out to make a historically accurate political thriller. American Hustle lies somewhere on the spectrum between a raunchy All the President’s Men and an emo Goodfellas.”
Russell “out-Scorseses Scorsese,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein: “whip pans, whooshes, slo-mo, tacky (but great) seventies chart toppers, actors wound up and let loose. His four leads have worked with him before to spectacular effect… They trust him enough to put everything they have into every shot, and in scene after scene they hit the motherlode. The movie is a slot machine that never stops spitting quarters.”
“Russell also emulates Scorsese’s knack for mixing aggressively comical moments in among the high-pitched dramatic confrontations,” notes Craig D. Lindsey in the Nashville Scene. “Although he’s shown a flair for combustible indoor fireworks ever since his 1994 debut Spanking the Monkey, Russell amps/camps it up on Hustle.” Here, “the result has the annoying, cartoonish artificiality of a costume party where everyone’s constantly eyeing themselves in the mirror. Considering that the opening coincides with The Wolf of Wall Street, the actual Martin Scorsese movie of the holiday season—which I can assure you goes places Russell’s ’70s show doesn’t dare—audiences may discover how much of a hustle American Hustle truly is.”
At the Dissolve, Keith Phipps finds that “it’s both unfailingly exciting and overly familiar, a restless but risk-averse film that’s a little too content to borrow from what’s worked before. That borrowing only adds to a sense that everyone here is playing dress up, but it is quite a show, filled with big moments and bigger performances that find ache and yearning beneath the histrionics.”
“But it’s Lawrence who brings the most air and energy to American Hustle,” writes the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek, speaking for just about the whole world.
More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3.5/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5), Robbie Collin (Telegraph, 4/5), David D’Arcy (Artinfo), Peter Debruge (Variety), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, A-), Dennis Harvey (San Francisco Bay Guardian), Robert Horton (Seattle Weekly), Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair), Christy Lemire (RogerEbert.com, 4/4), Guy Lodge (Time Out London, 4/5), Geoffrey Macnab (Independent), Antonia Quirke (Financial Times, 3/5), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 5/5), Emma Simmonds (Arts Desk), Eric D. Snider (Twitch), and David Thomson (New Republic).
Updates, 12/25: “The interplay between Bale and Adams is Hustle’s sturdy spine,” argues the Stranger‘s Paul Constant. “Prosser and Rosenfeld’s romance is unlikely, but their relationship feels believable. In their quest to con everyone else out of their money, the pair must try to forge some sort of honesty together. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
“Yet despite this fine ensemble cast, American Hustle never amounts to anything more than the sum of its parts,” finds Kiva Reardon, writing for the Loop. “While Russell and Eric Singer’s script is immensely quotable, it doesn’t build any momentum or suspense. In the end, the story gets weighed down by its sprawling, episodic content, and excellent characters are left stranded, being better than the story they’re stuck in.”
Kate Stables for Sight & Sound: “This is a film about performance in every sense, a gloriously juicy and well-played actors’ movie, so besotted by its characters that the director eschews a set style to let the camera chase across the widescreen frames after the rowing, plotting, strutting trio at its heart…. Like the Abscam con, the film is a convincing confection, so well played that we don’t care if it’s the real deal or not. If it’s not a masterwork, it’s a classy copy, ranking with the luminous sham-Rembrandt that Irv praises above a legitimate one, because ‘the guy who made this was so good that it is real to everybody.'”
“Whether this all adds up to something more than a brilliantly window-dressed period piece with ring-a-ding performances from an all-star cast remains to be seen,” finds the Observer‘s Mark Kermode. “On first viewing, it’s all about the look, with Linus Sandgren’s widescreen lens repeatedly zooming in on bubbling social tableaux (the bar, the restaurant, the gambling table) with an air of deliberate superficiality. Ogling the shiny surfaces while tapping your toes to the pulsing pop beat, you forget that Russell once made such impenetrable navel-gazing twaddle as I Heart Huckabees, and simply revel in the fact that American Hustle is often deliriously good fun.”
Louis C.K.—no, really—talks with Russell for Interview.
Updates, 12/26: “American Hustle doesn’t conform to one genre, though it has elements of farce, screwball, heist thriller and caper comedy,” writes Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman. “In dressing it up like a Scorsese-style crime movie, Russell brings an unusual weight and tension to what is, in essence, a gentle, rather lovely romantic comedy about tentative people trying to trust one another.”
For Sam Adams, writing for the Philadelphia City Paper, “almost everything about American Hustle is garbled; the good bits (which are significant) are mixed in with the junk willy-nilly. Even for Russell, who’s hardly a master of structure, it’s an unforgivably sloppy mess. That people buy into it feels like the biggest swindle of all.”
For Grantland‘s Wesley Morris, “the movie has a strange druggy energy. It could never pass a sobriety test—not because it’s drunk, but because it’s mentally off…. Russell is 55 now, and he doesn’t seem out to prove anything. Dysfunction dominates American Hustle—sexual, conjugal, occupational, institutional, sartorial. Robert Altman’s movies could get that way, strange and exhilaratingly sloppy; sometimes Billy Wilder’s, too.”
“Bale and Lawrence, bickering and barking and making up, are the best reasons to spend time with the hustlers, even when the story gets padded out,” writes Kelly Vance in the East Bay Express. “It’s essentially just one more Me Decade folly—disco toilets, men with perms—with a high-priced cast and smarter-than-average dialogue, but no real surprises. Robert DeNiro shows up as a gangster (no, really?) and Jack Huston contributes a nice bit as the gangster’s son. Without Scorsese this movie could simply never exist.”
Update, 12/27: For Glenn Heath Jr., writing for the San Diego City Beat, “this glitzy and raucous vision doesn’t go far enough down the rabbit hole of absurdity to make the necessary impact.”
Updates, 1/2: “Here is a movie about conmen without a single bad guy,” writes Otie Wheeler at The Vulgar Cinema. “A movie about corruption without a trace of cynicism…. It’s the same story Russell told twice before, with the same general actors playing the same general characters in the same general way but cast against type this time…. Here is a movie about bullshit artists who want desperately to stop BSing. It’s a movie so shrill, even John Cassavetes might have asked the actors to tone it down; he certainly would’ve edited the film to be less entertaining, but that was a perversity unique to Cassavetes. Russell’s biggest flaw is giving the audience what it wants rather than what it needs, but with so few directors pursuing Old Hollywood aura while trying to realize a personal artistic vision, it may be a flaw worth forgiving.”
Hustle, “probably more than any other I’ve seen this year, luxuriantly revels in the joys of its own creation,” writes Christopher Bourne.
Updates, 1/6: “No one has taken American Hustle’s life-affirming moral more seriously than its own director,” writes David Katz at the Quietus. “Where lesser, lazier directors would paint its cast of hucksters, shysters and airheads in unforgiving terms, Russell offers only love and empathy.”
For Michael Smith, the “question arises: can one speak of David O. Russell as even having a distinctive visual style of his own? American Hustle is as formally expressive as his last film, Silver Linings Playbook, was pedestrian but one feels that Russell is merely ‘trying on’ Scorsese like one tries on a suit of clothes… So, no, it’s not the best film of the year by a long shot, but watching world-class actors riotously tearing it up for two hours and 18 minutes certainly ain’t nothing.”
Updates, 3/30: “American Hustle slides with such grace through its intrigues, slipping in so many diverting props and devices and walk-ons that you may start to feel you’re being hustled by the film itself,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien for the New York Review of Books. “It’s the classic con man’s tactic: keep talking and keep changing the subject whenever necessary, and make sure the mark can never quite put all the pieces together. If so, it’s a hustle of the pleasant sort that can be savored even while you know you’re being conned.”
It’s “an easy movie to love,” agrees Michael Atkinson, writing for In These Times. “Just when you thought movies about grown-ups and made for grown-ups—with a lavish helping of cynicism, zest and brazen sex appeal—constituted a costly habit Hollywood is looking to drop, this thoroughly unpretentious and nervy film bursts into the room, satisfying itches that haven’t been reliably scratched by American movies since Martin Scorsese gave up on contemporary New York’s five boroughs.” Russell is “the auteur theory in action—his movies are as uniquely his as his handprint smacked across your cheek. American Hustle’s political vacuum and stylistic excesses are small-potato cavils compared to its victory of restless humanity over technology and groupthink.”
At Esquire, Paul Schrodt argues that “the true message of the movie is that all those seductive surfaces, put forth with sincerity, actually mean something.”