Release Date: December 20th, 2013 (US); January 1st, 2014 (UK)
Genre: Crime; Drama
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
“Some of this actually happened.”
These are the first words you see on screen as American Hustle rolls along the runway in preparation for a turbulent take-off. The next thing, an obtuse, balding Christian Bale spends a good few minutes chained to mirror, meticulously attempting to glue hair to his head. And it’s brilliant. One minute the film is poking fun at itself, the next it’s indulging in extended Hollywood grooming. Whether or not you actually believe that any of what is to come actually happened is irrelevant. Batman is fat and bald. Only he’s not Batman, he’s the first of five characters who, placed in any other film, could easily be dismissed as unlovable. Yet these characters, these jaded and faulting human beings are the epitome of most things great in American Hustle — and trust me, most things are great.
After a string of loan scams gone right, con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught cheque-handed by exuberant FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Along with a reluctant Sydney, who is posing as a Brit with banking connections, Irving is manipulated into joining DiMaso in a plan to take down four potentially corrupt political figures, including the well-meaning New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). If Irving does not oblige, he fears the loss of his adopted son from his marriage with an uncontrollable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
First thing’s first: American Hustle serves up an abundance of heart to go along with bountiful amounts of razzmatazz and wild hair-pieces, and this is no small part down to David O. Russell’s focused direction, a direction particularly zoned in on his characters. Since making The Fighter in 2010, Russell has admitted that people are the most important elements of his films, that they infuse soul into his work, and this is certainly true here. At best the plot is slightly overloaded, but then it probably should be given the elaborate scam unfolding on screen. Russell deflects all attention away from these various narrative layers and strands though, and gives his characters the limelight. Unselfishly too — this character-based production style is something that doesn’t always necessarily invite directorial attention, rather the actors take most of the plaudits. However Russell’s passion for people, which is as much on display in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as it is here, means he most likely doesn’t want all the plaudits no matter how much he deserves them.
It’s not often that a truly A-list cast amalgamates where each actor delivers a tip-top performance. Normally, either there’s not enough material to satisfy so many hungry egos, or a severe case of weary cheque-collecting goes on. This could not be further from the truth in American Hustle, as the five stars bring out the absolute best and most flamboyant in one another. As Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale is the centrepiece of events, the instigator of many of the crazy goings-on (whether he likes it or not). “He had this air about him.” Sydney is absolutely correct. At the beginning, you get the feeling Irving is growing tired of his surroundings, he’s let himself go but not so far as to come across as weak — what we see externally is carefully tended (the hair), what we don’t see is tucked away (the stomach). It’s not until the glamorous and vibrant Sydney Prosser glances over into his life that Irving experiences an ambience of regeneration. Adams embodies seduction; she mesmerises the viewer as much as she does Bale and it’s obvious her character Sydney (or is it Evelyn?) has had a lot of practice in hiding charmingly behind a veil of otherness.
Bradley Cooper, who put in a career-best performance in David O. Russell’s previous film, is astoundingly funny as Richie DiMaso. He has the 70s jumping off him: a curly perm, outlandish clothing and that wise-cracking demeanour, one which harks back to more serious crime outputs such as Goodfellas, and even Scarface. DiMaso manoeuvres in the opposite direction to that of Irving — he becomes too cocky, dragged into a world of madness. As American Hustle trumpets on, it becomes an electric game of one-upmanship between Irving, Sydney and DiMaso. Nobody really knows who is playing who. There’s an air of unpredictability about proceedings. All of this makes for more compelling viewing as the sentiment hanging-on-every-word becomes agreeably essential.
Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn is another firecracker in this celebration of absurdity and Jennifer Lawrence throws herself at the character. She delivers many of the funniest lines very well (“Don’t put metal in the science oven”) yet still manages to evoke heartfelt sympathy. It’s clear Rosalyn is under appreciated, struggles with demons and craves some consistent attention from Irving, or anyone really. To be able to stand on, and subsequently pull off, both sides of fence — the staunchly comedic and starkly vulnerable — is a testament to Jennifer Lawrence’s ability as an actor and storyteller. Newcomer to the David O. Russell school of actors (perhaps the coolest club going in Hollywood) is Jeremy Renner, a welcome addition. As Mayor Polito, Renner is more likeable than ever in a very different role from those he has partaken in recently. His outrageous facial expressions during a sing-a-long with Bale is a standout moment.
Harking back to David O. Russell’s preferred filmmaking style, behind all of the madness, these characters still feel like real people (they listen to each other’s phone calls in the other room for heaven’s sake). None of them really want to be where they are. Perhaps they are wearily sucked in, or can’t seem to find a way out. Better lives, that’s all they’re after. They create attractively unattractive personas in order to acclimatise to the anarchy. Yet you still want to love them in the end. Unlike the plot, which arguably outstays its welcome, not one single character does.
The saying ‘never a dull moment’ has rarely been more fitting. Everything here is so over the top and brash. When names such as Carmine Polito and Victor Tellegio are sprayed around, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of entertainment on show. There absolutely is a sense of indulgence, but it’s more than simply self-indulgence, rather a communal kind between filmmaker and audience. A conversation about coriander and perfume smelling like “flowers, but with garbage” essentially sums up American Hustle: it sort of doesn’t make sense, but the circus-like pandemonium makes the film great because it allows people to thrive and evolve.
I left the cinema thinking American Hustle was a good film, and many hours later it is still growing on me. There is a good chance it will for a long time. It’s euphoria and desolation. Furious and funny. Organised chaos which descends (or ascends) into disorganised chaos. Somewhere along the way, Bradley Cooper, in his most vociferous New Yoik accent says, “You might even get sick of me!” He could be referring to the fabulous five on show (or six, if you include David O. Russell).
If so, honestly Bradley? Not in the slightest.