It’s back to the 70s for David O Russell’s crime caper, which is a stylish tale of sly dealings, undercover stings and sexy side-boobs. Letting himself off any inaccuracies to the real life story, American Hustle starts with the cheeky titles ‘Some of this actually happened’ as it presents the account of con man Irving Rosenfeld and his involvement in the FBI operation ABSCAM.
Brilliant con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) aspires for more, beyond his dry cleaning businesses and his dodgy art dealings and when he meets kindred con spirit Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his scams are elevated to another level. She poses as an English aristocrat to ensnare clients into bogus loans and as the pair reaps the rewards of their phoney finance loans, Irving and Sydney also become lovers, they are soul mates with dubious souls. However their illegal operation is brought to a close by driven FBI agent Ritchie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who catches them in the midst of their scam act and arrests Sydney. DiMaso, hungry for big arrests, offers the couple a lifeline, their freedom if they line up four additional arrests for him, a plan Rosenfeld opposes, but with no real choice, accepts. As egos and ambition become magnified, the plan is taken to dangerous territory from a go getting mayor (Jeremy Renner) to politicians to the Mafia, while loyalties shift and Rosenfeld struggles with his tempestuous wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) whose loose lips threaten the whole operation.
American Hustle is a flashy film that is directed with panache and vigour by O Russell, yet the story, whilst boasting some clever moves, does not bring much new to table and means the film lags in places, which may be down to the improvisation that the (uniformly excellent) cast were encouraged to do. And the film’s moral compass does not simply waver but is virtually nonexistent on the map, meaning there is no one to really root for. Interestingly the most sympathy may lay with Irving Rosenfeld whose relationship with Sydney Prosser seems to be the salvation that he truly desires above all the lies and deceit. Bale, who gained 50 pounds for the role, somehow manages to make exterior sad sack Rosenfeld charismatic and weirdly likeable, trapped in a volatile marriage with Rosalyn who uses her son (whom Rosenfeld adopted) to keep him from divorcing her, he is ultimately a soft man, trapped in a whirlwind of bad decisions. Adams’ Sydney is a complex character, whose intentions are hard to read at times, she is alluring on screen, fragile yet feisty, in control yet contradictory and when the film loses pace at times, her cleavage brings the focus back. Cooper is perhaps the weaker link as DiMaso, after his remarkable performance in O Russell’s previous film Silver Linings Playbook, the energy he brought to that role is now misplaced and a little misjudged as his character amounts to nothing more than a spoilt brat wanting his own way. Lawrence meanwhile appears to channel her Silver Linings character; her portrayal of Rosalyn echoes the bruised yet spirited girl she has played before, albeit this time embellished in 1970s bravado.
Since the Golden Globes, David O Russell’s will always be affectionately known as ‘explosion in a wig factory’ and an explosion of hair it is. The characters tresses become a bouffant metaphor for their damaged personalities. From Bradley Cooper’s tightly wound agent with his tightly wound curls, Christian Bale’s Con comb over that is at risk of being exposed to Amy Adam’s red mane, constantly seen in rollers, with aspirations to become something bigger and better.
American Hustle may not quite be the big Oscar film it has been made out to be but it is a well groomed romp with a few tricks up its 70s sleeves. O Russell is a director with an eye for an arresting scene and a way to get the best from his actors; however it does not reach the emotional heights of his previous films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Like Bale’s character, O Russell needs to learn to cut the excess, if the film was a leaner, more focused piece it may have become an American classic.