It seems somewhat fitting to me that a film like American Hustle is as inherently duplicitous as its title would suggest. This is not a Scorsese-esque crime thriller, nor is it really a black comedy built around the late-1970s Abscam scandal, although it masquerades (and director David O. Russell would like you to believe it) as both. Rather, it’s a powerful character study. It’s a story about four preposterous individuals, each chasing their own absurd interpretation of the American Dream.
Christian Bale (having put on just as many pounds as he lost for his roles in The Machinist and The Fighter) plays Irving Rosenfeld; a balding, overweight small-time grifter who is doing reasonably well for himself operating dry-cleaning stores and selling forged art. Irv is a self-pitying con artist with a touch of good nature and of the aesthete; he seems to love the art he sells, he seems to pity the people from which he steals, and he’s very much in love with his mistress and fellow trickster, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).
Adams plays Sydney with a gleam of sociopathic menace. She is beautiful and manipulative, and uses her alter-ego (which she occasionally slips into unwittingly) of English Lady Edith Greensly to lure potential marks with a promise of London banking contacts. The financially desperate agree to pay non-refundable commission fees to Irv for his brokerage of loans he knows they will never receive. That is, until Bradley Cooper’s tightly-permed, overzealous FBI agent Richie DiMaso catches them both in the act, and offers to drop the charges against them if they agree to help him perform a long con which will ensnare various New Jersey public officials, among them salt-of-the-earth Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner complete with an Elvis pompadour).
An opening caption reads: “Some of this actually happened…”, though we’re not told exactly how much. Russell is clearly working with a fair helping of creative license, but it never really matters. The scam itself is almost superfluous. This is an ensemble piece with an incredibly talented cast working at the peak of their abilities, and a lot of that manifests itself as two characters shouting at each other in a variety of rooms, often about things unrelated to the actual story. Which is fine, because it’s done so well that it’s easy to feel as though that’s the whole point.
These are complex, interesting characters too; Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld in particular. He shambles around with a ridiculous comb-over squatting on his head like some kind of rescued roadkill, and his vulnerability is disarming. He has problems at home in the form of his stay-at-home wife, Rosalyn (a whirlwind of beehive curls and fake nails played spectacularly by Jennifer Lawrence), who spews passive-aggressive one-liners and recites passages from her favourite self-help books as slim justifications for her increasingly erratic behaviour. And she has a son from a previous marriage, whom Irv has adopted. Lawrence is perfect for this kind of material, and it’s great to see her escape the trappings of The Hunger Games and flourish; she’s one of the best young actresses in the world, a captivating screen presence, and a pleasure to watch here.
The other standout is undoubtedly Bradley Cooper, who produces the best performance of his career as DiMaso, the overreaching agent who is so desperate for recognition that he completely lacks the self-awareness necessary to pull off this kind of complicated operation. He’s a liability to both sides of the law, particularly his boss Stoddard Thorsen (wonderfully portrayed by Louis CK) as he takes greater and greater liabilities with the Bureau’s resources; and Irving himself as he becomes closer to and, by extension, more enamoured with Sydney. Cooper throws himself at the role and attacks it with real tenacity. It’s fascinating to see him work with such fervour, and his character has by far some of the best (and funniest) scenes.
American Hustle isn’t overtly a comedy, but it’s still darkly funny in many places. A lot of the humour is born of these characters struggling to coexist and trust one another, but more is simply a product of slick, smart writing, particularly in the first act when the plot is fairly slight and the stakes are fairly low. The jokes take prominence in the absence of conflict, or whenever the screenplay starts to buckle under its own weight. While there are moments when the whole thing feels unnecessarily flabby and convoluted, the laughs are just enough to shunt the audience forwards to the next big dramatic scene.
Tonally, American Hustle does occasionally evoke films like Casino, all the way from the mobster sentimentality down to the tense backroom negotiation with a powerful East Coast Mafioso. There’s a fair amount of this, but not quite enough for the film to be labelled as a Scorsese knock-off as some have suggested. It’s difficult to classify this kind of caper at all, but it’s much less an imitative work than Russell’s very own performance piece – perhaps the very piece he has been working towards for the last decade.
The film’s aesthetic and thematic leanings parallel other 70s period pieces such as Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, but these similarities often seem more prominent than they should as the film draws a lot of focus on visuals and sound in the absence of a stronger dramatic throughline. It isn’t too much of a problem, as American Hustle looks great and sounds incredible, largely favouring genuine hits of the era over an original score (and making terrific use of Jennifer Lawrence and Wings’ “Live and Let Die”), so even when almost everything has been peeled away the film is still entertaining to simply look at and listen to.
Which, again, is almost the point. Remember, only some of this actually happened, and the importance of the hustle itself remains questionable. This is a film of impeccable casting and powerhouse performances, any of which alone are worth the price of a ticket. It’s clever, funny, sexy, brash, and a damn fine piece of filmmaking that deserves to be seen, for the wigs if nothing else.
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