American Hustle review

Review Mark Harrison 3 Jan 2014 - 09:00

Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence assemble for American Hustle. Here's Mark's review of David O Russell's comedy drama...

“Some of this actually happened.”

So begins American Hustle, a decidedly cheeky crime caper that's a lot funnier than it looks. Working from a script that topped the Black List of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood a few years back, (under the title American Bullshit) director David O Russell has rounded up a bunch of comic book characters (Batman, Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon, Hawkeye and Mystique all feature) and set out to lampoon the Abscam scandal - an FBI-led sting operation designed to unmask corrupt public officials.

In this fictionalised version of events, set in New York in 1978, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a conman who falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and becomes involved in a lucrative embezzling scheme with her, while also trying to keep his young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and their son happy.

When they're stung by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), Irving is press-ganged into catching out other con artists, and later becomes embroiled in Richie's hare-brained plan to entrap public officials whom he believes are accepting bribes. Their mark? Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the New Jersey politician who is campaigning to galvanise the economy by building casinos.

As Irving forms a genuine friendship with the mayor, Sydney starts to develop feelings for Richie. Meanwhile, Richie continues to over-reach his authority at work, and everybody starts to feel as if they're in over their heads, and in some cases, over their hairstyles.

In all fairness, I don't want to misrepresent American Hustle as a film that's solely about hairstyles, but even the first scene immediately establishes its characters in terms of the way that they treat Irving's elaborate comb-over.

The opening shot finds the conman teasing it into shape, labouring over its absurdity until he's happy with it. By contrast, Richie ruffles up all of Irving's meticulous work just to piss him off, causing Sydney to placate him and undo the damage. The three characters go on to interact with their situation and each other in much the same way throughout the movie.

Bale has undergone another of his famous physical transformations for the role, donning some truly terrible hair and a grotesque pot belly for the part. There's more than a little of Robert De Niro in his portrayal, with a couple of distracting mannerisms contributing a lot towards that overall impression, and towards some inferred similarities with Martin Scorsese's style, but it's a solid leading turn from Bale.

Playing against type, Adams makes for a quite barmy love interest, wearing audaciously low-cut dresses, and affecting an English alter-ego called Lady Edith for most of the running time. It's always great to see Adams doing more than just being lovely, and Russell continues the appreciation for her acting range that he showed by casting her in The Fighter, even if she's destined to be out-barmied by Jennifer Lawrence.

The star player is Cooper, who gives the performance of his career as an agent who is so desperate to make a name for himself that he completely lacks self-awareness in his illegal and dangerous dealings. Richie is a liability to both his criminal crew, and his immediate superior at the FBI, Stoddard Thorsen, who's played brilliantly by Louis CK.

Cooper really flings himself into the role, and he's consistently either a catalyst, or the butt of some of the film's funniest scenes. On the other hand, his blinkered view of politicians, post-Watergate, sets up much of the film's escalation. He's completely deaf to the protests of Stoddard and Irving, and blind to the way in which Mayor Polito is actually a nice guy.

There's even something of a bittersweet bromance going on between Bale and Renner's characters, the con artist and the mark, that lends the characters a bit of sympathy; Polito is no corrupt official, and always seems to have good intentions for his state when he gets his hands dirty. He further endears himself to Irving by buying him a brand new microwave (or “science oven”, to use the film's technical term), a sweet gesture which only leads to more arguments with Rosalyn.

It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to blame the film's slow start on a shortage of Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's wife, because she's on her usual scene-stealing form from beginning to end. Whether meddling with the science oven, or belting out an instantly iconic rendition of Wings' Live And Let Die as she cleans her house, you find yourself wishing there was more of her all the way through, even if she's kind of extraneous to the film's central con.

The plot itself feels a bit slight, which makes the aesthetic and thematic parallels with other 70s period films, particularly Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, seem more prominent than they really should be. In truth, this is really more of a showcase for Russell's repertoire of actors; an unabashed performance piece in which the ensemble reigns.

On a related note, both Lawrence and Cooper evoke aspects of their performances in Russell's Silver Linings Playbook - the former echoes Tiffany's Oscar-winning instability, while the latter puts the tactless self-motivation of Pat to another, more comedic use.

Some may feel that there was more potential in a film about the Abscam operation. Although Russell hits beats like Richie rolling out a decidedly Mexican sheikh (played by Michael Peña) with gusto, I personally couldn't help but be reminded of how well Ben Affleck's Argo skewered the initial inaction of the CIA over the Iran hostage crisis.

The stakes are never higher than in a shady backroom meeting towards the end of the second act, when another actor (whose identity I won't spoil) turns up to essentially deliver the Christopher Walken special, reminiscent of such brief but memorable turns in Pulp Fiction and True Romance. But while the character this actor is playing should complicate matters even further with his unplanned involvement in proceedings, the film already seems set on the road to resolution even by that point.

As it was in Russell's previous two films, American Hustle is at its strongest when the jokes get going. Although it's been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture in the Musical or Comedy category, it's tough to describe the film as a comedy outright, but then it's tough to know how to class a caper like this, full stop. It's almost as if the jokes take prominence in the absence of a compelling dramatic throughline.

But it's not entirely fair to call it a Scorsese knock-off, as some have, especially when the acclaim for The Wolf Of Wall Street makes it look as though Russell has been caught aping Scorsese's style while he's still at the top of his game.

Instead, it feels closer to the Russell who made Three Kings than the director who made The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. That's only an unexpected difference, not an unwelcome one, and fans of the earlier film may find more to enjoy here than his more recent supporters.

American Hustle is a three-star movie filled with five-star performances - grades that are directly measured by how much they rely on the hairstyles. The film seems to have more to say about the style of the era than about unethical excesses on both sides of the law, while Russell's company of actors give real heft to their characters' machinations and interactions, even though the hair and costume choices do their darnedest to tell you all you really need to know about them.

Nevertheless, this is a funny, sexy and audacious film that's worth seeing for any one of its performers alone, even if it doesn't hang together all of the time. Some of this actually happened, and it's basically entertaining enough that you don't necessarily miss the rest of it.

American Hustle is out in UK cinemas now.

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Great review. Thanks for not spoiling the splendid cameo. In this day and age it's delightful to be honestly surprised. I agree that AH was much more about character than plot and this cast absolutely delivers.

Loved it, but, am I the only person that finds Lawrence hopelessly over rated? She's 'okay', but all these plaudits? I just don't see it. Last decent performance I saw from her was in Winters Bone. 3 Oscar noms and a win in her early 20's? Please, charisma does NOT equal talent.

Similar to the below comment, but this is a genuine wondering rather than an attack on her acting, but I just don't get Amy Adams being given roles of attractive ladies. I think she's a good enough actress, but for me she just isn't good looking. While she can just about get away with that in this, it felt really jarring for me in Man of Steel. Again, I'm not attacking her here, but does anyone else think her looks are rather overrated?

Good film by the way, I thought Bale did a great job.

Not just you, I seeing her dull non-performance in The Hunger Games and then being perplexed by all of the lavish praise for her.

I think shes very pretty, but she is getting on a bit, she isn't like a sex symbol or anything. But I do love her.

"American Hustle is a three-star movie filled with five-star performances"

I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. It's a remarkably uneven film that would sink completely if it were not for the strength of the performances.

And thanks for not spoiling the cameo. Unfortunately for me, other reviewers weren't so mindful.

Her batty performance in this film was utterly brilliant. And if you can't see the nuance of her Katniss in Hunger Games, you're blind.

I'd hardly call speaking in a monotone nuanced. Still, she was certainly at home amongst all that wood in the forest.

I'm not sure what you found wrong with her performance in this movie... in my mind, she played her character perfectly. (And I haven't seen her in anything else, not even "Hunger Games", so I'm basing my opinion on this movie alone.)

Because that was all there was to her performance, obviously.

I don't think vocal inflection is too much to ask for.

The whole point of the character is that, from the moment she volunteers at the reaping, she is forced to hide her true emotions, first for self-preservation, then for the sake of the rebellion.

That constant suppression would probably leave my vocals a little stilted too. It's yet another facet of the performance.

Yeah I see that point and indeed she's fine for this kind of movie, but for Superman? I don't know, just doesn't sit quite right. Oh well, each to their own I guess!

Shall we just agree to disagree? After all this isn't aintitcool

Ah, but that's no fun.

I like her. I thought she was brillaint in Silver Linings, just to add my tuppence in :)

spot on.

I enjoyed but found the barrage of 70s tunes intrusive at times.

This film felt waaaaaay over acted. i liked it allot but waaay over the top from all of them apart from the Mayor guyI felt like the director needed to reign in the actors performances. And the FBI chief was doing a Christopher walken impersonation

Utterly brilliant is a bit much.

Are you the only person who isn't a fan of her recent performances? Probably not,. But I can't think of anything that's ever been 100% universally loved and enjoyed by every single person in the entire world.

But overrated? No. Cos there's really no such thing. I've never liked the word overrated as it's essentially saying "This movie/music/performance/whatever is very popular and has been praised/appreciated by many people. But I don't like it so they're all wrong and I'm right."

It's like me and Lord of the Rings. I'm not a fan. I sat through Fellowship and Towers and found them both excruciatingly dull and devoid of any entertainment value whatsoever. But do I consider them overrated? Of course not. I just acknowledge that whatever it is millions of other people saw in those movies, it just wasn't there for me.

Whereas with Lawrence, I'm on the same page as the majority. And her incredible performance in this movie only helped solidify my opinion of her.

Disagree with the overacting. But I was getting big Walken vibes from Nivola. Who he did actually star alongside in a movie called "$5 a Day".

Loved this movie. Yep, it's all about the performances, but with performances like this, that's exactly what you want it to be all about. And it was laugh out loud funny in parts too. Particularly whenever Lawrence was on screen.

I get why people are talking up the Scorcese thing but actually it felt more like Woody Allen directing a period remake of Ocean's 11.

In fact it's barely a gangster movie at all, apart from that knowing cameo, it's just what you said, a caper movie. It has more in common with the likes of Tower Heist and Now You See Me than Donnie Brasco, Carlito's Way or Goodfellas although like them it gets the era spot on.

it was fun, talky, short on violence but also a little light on tension. The plot owed more than a little to The Sting.

Interesting to see a film where the bad guys are broadly more sympathetic and well intentioned than the supposed good guys.

team lawrence.

I've not seen the film yet, but has anyone else noticed that from the poster Jeremy Renner seems to be channelling The Mentalist?

I held the same opinion as you actually after the first film, especially since I was to enthralled with the books having just recently finished them that I was still coming off the buzz of new characters to properly analyse Katniss and her character.

So I came out of the first film confused and disappointed for quite a few reasons, one of them being her performance.

However, since viewing Silver Linings and Catching Fire I've realised just how nuanced her performance of Katniss is and how well she's grasped the concept of the character.

In terms of music, I liked the cover of "White Rabbit", which seemed best integrated into the setting. I agree with you about much of the rest of the music... not handled all that well.

You kidding? I think she is stunning!

Had to struggle to stay awake. The actors gave some impressive performances but the plot was uninteresting. As for mentioning its comedic values, I had to ask myself if I watched the same movie as the reviewer. One part was smile inducing but no more, when the 'shock cameo role player's started speaking Arabic to the sheikh. But that's about all. Oh and JL's ass won that Oscar for her

Saw this today and really enjoyed it - I hadn't read any reviews beforehand so didn't have any preconceptions and it kept me entertained all the way through. The humour may be fairly gentle but people in the audience found it consistently funny all the way through. The acting really is five star too. An Oscar should also probably go to Amy Adams' tit-tape - it performed magnificently.

went to see this last night and couldn't wait to get out the cinema! way too long and boring! i think the film as a whole is over rated but its just my opinion

Er...I partly take back what I said. She was appalling in Hunger Games but she is dazzling in American Hustle.

I did not find her performance over rated at all.

However, I do think she was mis-cast in the role. I will never believe her to be a mother (of a 5-6 yr old boy) and wife seeing as she still looks about 18.

Unless she was meant to be 18 of course?

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