Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper
Length: 138 minutes
Homage is a difficult process to perfect; the task of paying respect to past films without becoming stale or merely repeating their achievements can be arduous. David O. Russell’s new comedy, American Hustle which is loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation from the ‘70s, does just this. It is a stylistic and thematic companion to movies like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas but also remains infused with Russell’s signature style, and a sense of originality and excitement.
American Hustle follows con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who, with his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), is forced by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to organize a sting operation on the corrupt elite of New Jersey, including the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Together with Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), they quickly become embroiled in a seedy world of politicians, stockbrokers and Mafiosi.
Hustle begins with the on screen message: “some of this actually happened”. Its willingness to play fast and loose with real life and make it part of the film’s appeal is immediately refreshing in an age of biopics and factual accounts. It also allows Russell to do what he does best and create a story centred on the characters. In choosing to place the details of the real ABSCAM operation in the background and putting a fictionalised exploration of the people at the forefront, he creates a consistently involving character study that explores themes of greed, love, corruption and ambition. In a story this over the top, it is easy to become emotionally detached but Russell‘s exploration of the drives and compulsions of his central protagonists avoids this pitfall whilst also creating an eccentric and hilarious black comedy.
Jennifer Lawrence is a sheer force of nature as Bale’s disgruntled wife and Amy Adams further establishes herself as one of the finest actresses of her generation
One of the defining characteristics of a David O. Russell film has always been a sense of spiraling chaos. Whether it is the frantic final scenes of Flirting with Disaster involving a pair of gay cops and an acid lab or Bradley Cooper’s many meltdowns in Silver Linings Playbook, he is able to create comedy out of an ever-increasing feeling of panic and neuroticism. This is on full, ridiculous, painstaking display in American Hustle. The course of the operation and, in particular, the relationship between the characters becomes more absurd and deteriorates in different ways throughout the film and this is where it is at its most entertaining. Whilst I Heart Huckabees showed that this technique could backfire, it works here because we actually care about the characters.
These larger than life characters could have become mere caricatures in the hands of lesser performers but the exceptionally talented cast is able to make them believable and fully rounded. Bale once again dives headfirst into the role and is almost unrecognizable as a sleazy con man whilst Cooper gives his finest performance as an ambitious and deeply unlikeable FBI agent. Better still are the leading women; Jennifer Lawrence is a sheer force of nature as Bale’s disgruntled wife and Amy Adams further establishes herself as one of the finest actresses of her generation in a role that demands sex appeal as well as a deep sense of insecurity and pain. The rest of the cast is equally as good including Louis C.K whose scenes with Cooper provide some of the funniest moments of the film. All the central actors are at least worthy of Oscar consideration. Russell has proved that he is adept at coaxing nuanced performances out of his actors and in a cast that combines the best parts of his previous two films, he has clearly found a group of actors that work well for him.
American Hustle is admittedly too long, by about twenty minutes, and ends up feeling slightly less than the sum of its parts but few films released recently are this deliriously entertaining and funny. David O. Russell has put together a perfectly acted piece of cinema, which further places him in the ranks of the best directors working today.