American Hustle opens with Christian Bale's overweight conman Irving standing in front of a mirror piecing together his elaborate comb over. With glue, product, additional hair pieces it's no doubt that it's meticulous. Although this time consuming exercise is obviously for fake ends, it's a necessary lie agreed upon. It's with that spirit that director and co-writer David O. Russell deftly draws back the curtain on the flawed ugliness underpinning the foundations of the American dream. A 'small time' conman Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and his mistress/partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), masquerading as the moneyed British countess Lady Edith, get entrapped by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Instead of throwing them in jail he uses these small fish to attempt to bait a questionable politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Throw in an ever escalating scam and the deeper the con, the more you're not sure whose being played.
O. Russell floods the screen with his performers. It feels like he wants the audience to be enveloped by their feverish pursuit to attain their slice of Americana. It's a suffocating delirium that wants you pressed against their perspective. You're only briefly meant to be fooled by the sequins, luscious velvet or Donna Summer and the Electric Light Orchestra blaring through your speakers. O. Russell uses voice overs, either characters talking about themselves, swaying you to their cause; or occasionally character whispering their influence to you about the subject of their affection. It's satirical, funny, poetic but writer Eric Singer and O. Russell feel like they're teasing you with an impending heist of epic proportions that never seems to eventuate. It's doomed from the outset by the cannibalistic, life preserving motivations of the characters.
Bale's paunchy, velvet wearing Irving is the American dream as the opportunist. He's an actor that must commit to every performance. Instead of the chiselled superhero, or the skin draped over bones addict, he's renovating his body with the necessary front balcony to get into the physically inferior Irving; who must rely on his street smarts to get by. It's a performance that feels like De Niro in manner and in method. For an actor known for dominant, imposing, larger than life characters he tackles Irving with hesitation and importantly the life preservation instincts of a rodent. Faced with the bigger predators that he encounters in his on this ride is like watching a mouse being played with by a cat, only one that knows how to talk their way out of being eaten.
Adams' Sydney has been low, vulnerable and had to use her sexuality as a means to get what she wants. But she wants more of course. Getting out of that situation, talking her way into working for a fashion magazine, Sydney seems to be on a pathway her dream. It's only when the toil of the work involved to get there does Irving's moderate wealth, gifts and promise to take care of her does the 'con' game become irresistible. Adams really shines with Sydney's overconfidence to tackle a 'character' while appropriately being bad with the British accent and flaunting her sexuality with extroversion that reeks of the floor to ceiling poles in her dark past.
Cooper's Richie DiMaso takes a bowl of Joe Pesci flavoured cocaine and plants his face in it before tackling this role. His idea of the American dream is by exponentially uncovering corruption from the small time to its perch in Washington. But it's with an individualistic abandon and drive for personally 'quarter-backing' this victory that feels like he's already planning the ticker tape parade and the medals. Cooper delivers another great performance with his Silver Linings Playbook alumni especially when he's pushing around his much more thorough and kind boss Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.).
While these other characters are universally pretenders, Renner's Carmine is living the dream. He's living in a reality where a vein of corruption is what a pragmatic politician must contend with. Understanding all of the 'dirty little secrets' that are required to make things happen in this inherently corrupt space. The large family, his adopted African American son, the adoration through the neighbourhood; he's a Kennedy-esque peoples politician, that amongst all the sincerity, feels like a Brady Bunch version of a political figure.
The wild card of the entire film is Jennifer Lawrence's Rosalyn Rosenfeld. Irving's wife, is a petulant firecracker, relegated to domesticity is bored into manipulation. She's instantly able to disarm Irving's composure, and she's as vindictive as they come. From the moment Lawrence appears on screen, it's like O. Russell lights a fuse and every time you check in with her character you're waiting for this powder-keg to explode.
American Hustle is an ambitious satire, made by an accomplished filmmaker and loaded with terrific acting talent; but despite appreciating it for what it tried to achieve instead, it's hard not to feel slightly conned.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: David O. Russell Written by: Eric Singer and David O. Russell Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K,
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.