If a heist film doesn't actually focus on the heist, is it still a heist film? That's the premise of American Hustle, another one of those inspired by a true story crime capers. A pair of con artists are forced to deliver four big name criminals through their banking operation to avoid prosecution. The federal agent in charge of the mission keeps raising the stakes and changing the rules until everyone connected to the operation is in grave danger. You watch American Hustle for the acting, not the story. The film is very dry but firmly has its tongue planted in its cheek. It's high stakes with a totally ridiculous context and not a lot else going for it.
Amy Adams is really strong as Sydney, a woman who has repeatedly reinvented herself to move up in the world and tops out as one of the big con artists pulled into the fed's sting operation. Her personal contribution to the con is a flawless British accent and alternate identity as a Lady. Adams shifts between the high class Lady and her less savory alter egos depending on who is in the room. Even more impressive is when Sydney accidentally drops the accent and looks like she's convinced her life will be over because of her failings. It is such a subtle approach to the material that will keep growing in your memory long after the film is done.
Jennifer Lawrence has the flashiest role and she nails it. If you haven't encountered an authentic New Jersey/Long Island person who thinks they're better than everyone else, her accent will probably drive you insane. The fact is that people who are self conscious about their accents in this area learn to speak in a very neutral tone but slip into the full stereotypical accent when they show emotion. Lawrence's bored housewife has huge reactions to any perceived sleight and uses that range as a weapon. The accent grows thicker because she's spending so much mental power twisting the actions of her husband into the greatest attacks on any human being in the history of the world; she no longer has time to preserve the cleaner accent. The result is like going back to my time in NYC and watching my actor friends transform into different people during a fight--thicker accent, bigger gestures, and no signs of the years of physical and emotional training needed to convince people the characters in a play or film.
When it comes down to it, American Hustle is an interesting acting exercise where each actor seems to be performing in different films. Each character has their own spin on the storyline with very clear goals and motivations; none of them line up with anyone else. It makes for frustrating narrative moments but is mined well for comedy throughout the film.
American Hustle is an entertaining diversion with more emotional heft than you might expect. It doesn't revolutionize cinema or even stand out particularly well. What it does do is allow an open playground for some very talented actors to push themselves in unexpected directions.