Film Review: ‘American Hustle’

Amalgamating the best aspects of previous films The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) whilst dispensing with a lot of the emotional baggage that dragged both down after engaging first halves, David O. Russell now hits top form just in time for award season with American Hustle (2013). Both a beautifully orchestrated con artist thriller and a pulsating homage to seventies Hollywood, O. Russell plays fast and loose with a vaguely believable ‘true story’ narrative (‘Some of this actually happened’, we’re told), culminating in one of this year’s most furiously entertaining and quick-witted imports from across the pond.

An unassailable Christian Bale and a winning Amy Adams star as con artist duo Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, pressured into an uneasy working relationship with the FBI following a bust by Federal agent powder keg Richie DiMaso (a spectacularly permed Bradley Cooper). Driven by his own rampant desire to make a name for himself, DiMaso goes after some of New Jersey’s biggest criminal and political players, using unwitting local mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a fake sheikh and the potential rejuvenation of gambling Mecca Atlantic City’s waterfront as bait. Dragged into a world of high stakes and deadly consequences, an even more unstable love triangle begins to develop between Irving, the siren-like Sydney and DiMaso.

Already vaunted as an early Oscars frontrunner after scooping Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn) at this year’s New York Film Critics Circle awards, only the stoniest of hearts would deny American Hustle the plaudits it’s sure to receive. Beginning in the present as the trio attempt to ensnare Polito before jumping back to where it all began – a pool party and a discussion of the merits of Duke Ellington – the shadows of Coppola and Scorsese undoubtedly loom large. Yet, rather than be bogged down by reverence to the godfathers of the American crime epic, O. Russell makes a play for the comedic, unwilling to sacrifice enjoyment for verisimilitude.

Performances are almost universally excellent, with Adams, Cooper, Renner and a special cameo from a modern gangster cinema icon all delighting in equal measure. As with The Fighter, however, it’s Bale who once again comes out on top. Free from the shackles of Bruce Wayne/Batman – and twice the size he was in The Machinist – the British actor completely encapsulates the rotund and oddly sympathetic Rosenfeld, whose devotion to Sydney and adopted son Danny is never placed in doubt. Balding and slovenly, Bale effectively channels De Niro’s ballooning Jake LaMotta, a former prizefighter now out of his depth amongst corrupt senators, fraudulent Arab royals and the mafia. Meanwhile, his one true friend, Polito, is also his mark.

There are, of course, a handful of missed opportunities. In playing a ‘ditsy blonde’ type with a similar brain cell count to her beloved nail polish, Lawrence’s Rosalyn is hardly a stretch for a young actress of her calibre, who’s largely reduced to setting things on fire and bemoaning Irving’s new “science oven” (read ‘microwave’). In addition the seventies soundtrack – whilst toe-tapping – often wanders from the knowingly obvious into the just plain obvious, a forgivable midemeanour if you’re not au fait with the pop soundtrack’s finest exponents. And yet such quibbles are, as previously mentioned, minor when held against American Hustle numerous heavenly achievements. If you’ve been holding out for this year’s Argo, the wait is over.

Daniel Green