Happy New Year everybody! A new year means a whole new bunch of films to get through, the first of which for me was David O. Russell’s latest release American Hustle. Boasting a strong cast of Academy Award winners and nominees, the film provides a quirky and semi-fact based take on the real life ABSCAM operation of the 1970s, an FBI sting that aimed to catch and prosecute U.S. politicians who engaged in public corruption. I knew little more than nothing about American Hustle before seeing it other than the rather slick trailers that had been bandied about, and being the sucker for star power than I am, the actors involved were enough to persuade me to give it a go.
The first thought that comes to mind when recollecting my viewing experience is that it was an incredibly jarring one. The film is not at all fluid, attempting to incorporate a mixture of drama and comedy, that whilst working well respectively and independently of each other, do not seem to merge together in a particularly cognisant way. Being recently responsible for Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, two far superior films, it appears that director David O. Russell has attempted to take the best of both of these previous works in order to create the tone of American Hustle, a blend that ultimately proves less than harmonious. This is not helped by the plot, which is something of a hot mess detail and pace wise. The specifics of the story are so all over the place that the effort it takes to keep track during the film is not rewarded, in my mind, by a satisfying enough climax at the picture’s conclusion. Absolutely everything, plot and character, are turned up to eleven throughout the running time, and at points I was worried that the film was going to cross the boundary of credibility and roam in to Gangster Squad territory of awful, patience testing parody, but O. Russell’s ability combined with the acting talent on display saves it from that damning fate. The director cleverly uses an array of technical choices that encourage the audience to subconsciously align the film with others of far better quality, for example the use of retrospective voiceover and ‘car trunk perspective’ shots that have become synonymous with the Martin Scorsese classic Goodfellas, and a successful showcasing of the music of the time to rival that of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. These little traits along with the performances and great cinematography result in a much more enjoyable viewing experience than the plot and script deserve.
At the core of American Hustle, holding the at times very messy and muddy picture together, are the five main acting performances. Christian Bale is impressive in another body changing role as portly, balding con man Irving Rosenfeld. Whilst providing much comic relief with his dreadful toupee and thick Bronx accent, Bale plays it with an assurance that the audience is always aware that Irving is a cunning, experienced hustler who is happy to play the fool for the greater good. This cannot not be said for Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent Richie DiMaso, who has the privilege of being the first cinematic character to really, really grate on me in 2014. I feel that my annoyance lies solely in the character rather than the performance, as Cooper effectively portrays DiMaso as an egotistical, over excited, power hungry but ultimately inexperienced and outwitted man, struggling to play with the big boys and clearly out of his depth. Jeremy Renner as corruptible Mayor Carmine Polito was the pleasant surprise of the picture, he may look like the Teen Angel in a community theatre production of Grease, but his extremely likeable screen presence is at the heart of the films interesting exploration and representation of morality and the antihero. The lines of what is and what is not morally right become substantially blurred as the plot progresses, with the audience coming to question the motives of the so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters throughout.
Most striking in the film, for me, however, were the performances from the two female cast members, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Adams is certainly a candidate for most underrated actress of her generation, I feel she has been forgotten by some in this current era of Anne Hathaway hysteria. Her performance as con woman Sydney Prosser is filled with determination and allure, and the character does the much needed job of bringing relative calm to the screen in comparison to the rest of the cast. Much like Cooper’s Agent DiMaso she begins to find herself out of her depth, but not for one second do you feel as if she is losing control of her situation and this is thanks to Adams’ skilled portrayal of a character that at times could have been very caricature-like. The exact same can be said for Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s unstable young wife Rosalyn, she seems to blossom even more than usual under the direction of David O. Russell. Earning significantly less screen time than the rest of the cast, Lawrence still manages to make her mark as a manic, abrasive, confrontational yet endlessly endearing young woman who I feel is much smarter than we are lead to believe. Much of her dialogue is played for laughs, but a number of scenes, particularly one involving her and Adams in a night club restroom, are some of the best in the entire picture, and you find yourself rooting for the character even though you know very little about her.
Overall, American Hustle is much like the New Years Eve party experience that you all no doubt had a couple of days ago. The invitation enticed you, you were excited about going, it wasn’t exactly what you expected, at times it was messy, but the music was great, there were lots of laughs, the occasional (mostly drunken) dramatic moment, but ultimately you had a fun and enjoyable time, some of which you may not remember.