David O. Russell’s second film to hit Australian screens over the past twelve months – following his masterful romantic comedy/drama Silver Linings Playbook - is American Hustle, a stylish, complex and genre defiant 70’s-set crime-caper with a wonderful ensemble cast. Endowed with a manic sense of pace - the characters talk fast, the camera is always active and conflicting tones co-exist within the same scene - Russell and his co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer have successfully managed to wrangle this convoluted piece of history into a cohesive screenplay with an entertaining fictional twist. It is an impressive achievement that takes a little while to process and a second viewing, once we understand each of the players and where they end up, is perhaps essential.
It is Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, a brilliant con man, who brings the emotional core to this loaded film. Along with his partner and lover, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), Rosenfeld has built a successful foundation of financial scams and fake art dealings on top of a legitimate dry cleaning business. When a wildly ambitious and unpredictable FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) nabs them, they are forced to help him take out corrupt Jersey politicians, and in extension, intimidating members of the mafia, by conning them into taking bribes. They don't spend time in prison, and DiMaso makes a name for himself. Their plan comes to involve the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who gets caught between friendship with Rosenfeld and the FBI ABSCAM scandal, and unexpectedly Rosenfeld’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
Occupied by some flat patches that lack Russell’s aforementioned hyperactive energy (and unique personality), the film's length does feel a tad bloated. Especially in the film’s necessary, but prolonged voice-over driven, Goodfellas-influenced build-up. Adams' wardrobe was also another point of criticism. While her British facade required her to be sultry and seductive in meetings with potential scam victims, I'm not convinced those get-ups were necessary throughout. Her con becomes so desperate she loses sight of where her allegiance lies, and the audience is in the dark too. But, with a cast who bring everything in their repertoire to these fascinating characters, and twists threatening to reveal themselves at every turn, American Hustle remains engaging and interesting.
American Hustle is fueled by a terrific idea, with Rosenfeld's arc worth the story alone. A small time but successful conman, a family man who loves his son dearly, has been in complete control for many years. He suddenly finds himself an even smaller fish when he has to hustle FBI Agents, politicians, Jersey gangsters, as well as his mistress and his wife all at the same time. While Rosenfeld is not a particularly likable character, Bale earns our respect and breaks our heart. His physical transformation is astounding. It is one of his greatest performances to date.
Almost every scene featuring Cooper and Lawrence, both extraordinary again, draws a laugh. I hope their partnership with Russell continues. Renner was perfectly cast as a well-meaning politician, whose huge heart was too trusting. Louis C.K has the film's funniest running joke, while Alessandro Nivola provides the most unintentional laughs. With that exciting period aesthetic - the sharp suits and plunging-neckline dresses, elaborate hairdos and the impeccable design of the offices, hotel lobbies and nightclubs - I never doubted I had been transported back to the 70's. The lively if narratively overworked soundtrack of classics adds to the fun.
American Hustle delves into the idea that everyone has aspirations perhaps beyond their grasp. We con ourselves into believing we can achieve those dreams – whether they are for wealth, love or respect - and con others to ensure we survive and stay in control. Or the illusion of control. Everyone in this film is working a hustle of some kind. When the stakes are raised, everyone fends for themselves in finding a way out of the snowballing enterprise.
I get why one doesn't embrace American Hustle. It is odd. Russell has tried to make a period caper film on his own terms, trying to step out of the giant shadow of guys like Scorsese. The influence is clearly there, but so is further evidence that Russell understands how to win our emotions through flawed, unpredictable characters. Plenty about this film - the music, the dialogue, the subtle characterizations - has remained lingering in my mind, and that's not something you can say about every film these days.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22