“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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