So it seems that ‘third times a charm’ didn’t quite come true for American Hustle director David O. Russell. After the one-two sucker punch of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which garnered Russell Oscar nominations for directing, he may feel hard done by but does American Hustle warrant praise or simply con its way to success?
Loosely based on the ABSCAM operation executed by the FBI in the late ‘70s, American Hustle sees con-people Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) happily pulling credit heists until they are caught by FBI Agent Richie (Bradley Cooper). In order to keep themselves out of jail Irving and Sydney agree to help Richie entrap Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). With the trap set all is going smoothly until the mobster gambling community get involved and Irving’s nosey wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to undermine everything they’ve worked for.
Partly thanks to the period setting and partly due to the crisp, always effective dialogue on offer, American Hustle plays out like a Martin Scorsese film when the director was at his Goodfellas and Casino zenith. It’s slick, riveting and darkly comedic. In fact the only thing missing is Robert De Niro as a gangster, and then the man himself turns up as, you guest-it, a gangster. It’s the crowning moment of a film that is sheer delectable gold from start to finish.
Like a retro Ocean’s Eleven (the remake as opposed to the actual retro incarnation of The Rat Pack), American Hustle subtly stays one step ahead of the audience. With every character on offer seemingly suffering from an identity crisis, from Adams’ confused English accent, Bale’s hysterical comb-over and Cooper’s pent-up anger, it’s impossible to guess who is conning who. The plot might waver but you’re so invested in the characters and guessing games of it all that you’ll find yourself sitting there with a darkly nourished grin plastered on your face.
Like Silver Linings and The Fighter, Russell’s direction is workmanlike rather than flashy. Yes there’s the occasional moment of flair, a steady-cam shot that pulls and pushes you in and out of various characters’ moments as well as montages that drip with nostalgic glee, but for the most part Russell is a director who knows when to let his characters shine.
Assembling the cream of his latest films Russell has created enough vibrant and brilliantly engaging characters to fill a Quentin Tarantino movie. Bale is on typically stunning form, his Irving a bloated, clearly conflicted oaf who, while not the most attractive aesthetically, is the closest thing to a good guy on offer. Cooper continues the form he showed in Silver Linings but here is clearly relishing the prospect of playing a character who assumes he’s the smartest man in the room, when actually he’s probably the dumbest. Amy Adams is nothing short of delectable. Wearing some of the most revealing and jaw-dropping outfits this side of Showgirls her Sydney is both seductress and lost lamb, using her wiles to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. And all the while Lawrence, who is essentially a supporting character here, steals every scene she is in. If there was any doubt as to her being the very best at what she does American Hustle will cast that aside like The Hulk would a bale of hay. She injects Rosalyn with a brilliant sense of naïve arrogance, an almost cartoonish manipulation that wouldn’t be out of place as a reality TV star in something like Real Housewives Of New Jersey.
While American Hustle did not see Russell gain his little gold statue for direction his best adapted screenplay nomination is well earned. American Hustle will con its way into your heart and then make you fall in love with it through sheer force of will.