"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster". Wait, I didn't mean to quote Goodfellas, I meant quote a line from co-writer/director David O. Russell's American Hustle. Actually, it's possible to get the two confused because American Hustle plays out like a grand tribute to the crime drama of Martin Scorsese. Sure, if a filmmaker is going to borrow from anyone it should be master like Scorsese, and while the excellent cast makes an impression, Russell has forgotten to leave his own mark on the material.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) run a successful scam business. When the duo is caught by an FBI Agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they agree to help with a series of stings aimed at New Jersey powerbroker, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), in order to stay out of jail. The story is based on the real life Abscam operation run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States of America between the 70s and 80s to target corrupt public officials.
Although the plot focuses on the path to the execution of the Abscam sting, the screenplay by Eric Singer (with rewrites from Russell) muses on the concept of the 'con'. All the relationships in the film are perceived as a different type of con as a mean to survive. Even Rosenfeld admits that it happens on a personal level because we con ourselves into feeling better about our actions. It takes on the feel of the dreams from Inception; there is a con, within a con, within a con. With multiple levels of manipulation it becomes interesting to see the characters influence each other but Singer and Russell spend why too much time in a ponderous mood. The momentum of the story often stalls and it feels like an eternity before the actual operation begins. Luckily, Singer and Russell lighten things with the right amount of humour designed to hype up the ludicrous nature of the circumstances fuelled by the notion that it 'actually happened'.
Overlapping everything is Russell's style that's working heavily from the Scorsese criminal playbook with voiceovers, slow motion musical montages and even an appearance from the actor most synonymous with Lord Scorsese's back catalogue. Yes, it's enjoyable, but it also feels far too familiar and it's a hard comparison to shake.
Under giant hairstyles, gold jewellery and makeup that looks like a Revlon factory exploded is an outstanding ensemble of actors. Bale is the lynchpin as the balding and bloated Rosenfeld. A lot of the actors get to indulge in their caricatures but Bale is calm and composed. Despite Rosenfeld's status as a con man he's still a professional, and despite his tough talking, Bale manages to convey him as a passionate man with a gift for talking people out of their own money. Adams explodes with sass and makes an ace pairing with Bale. You can sense the camaraderie between the two characters that endures the major arc of the plot. Cooper is sensational and his rage driven overconfidence brings something different to the portrayal of an FBI agent. The scenes Cooper shares with a fellow agent played by Louis C.K are the definite highlight, but Cooper is magnetic in every single scene. Jennifer Lawrence has the most fun as Rosenfeld's accident prone wife who is always underestimated by her husband but she secretly has her own skills of manipulation refined.
American Hustle is a velvet drenched romp through the world of a con man but most of the time it's like watching a Las Vegas Scorsese tribute show.
[rating=3] and a half
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies