Synopsis: A con man, Irving Rosenfeld, along with his seductive British partner, Sydney Prosser, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso. DiMaso pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.
David O. Russell’s follow up to his Oscar nominated Silver Linings Playbook is a Mamet-esque tale of weaving deceptions and long cons that contorts in and around it’s subjects until you don’t know who is playing whom and to what ends.
American Hustle can be viewed broadly as a lovingly painted homage to the 90’s visual style of Scorcese (Goodfellas and Casino most notably) with it’s lushious attention to detail, and quick zoom framing, and the script beats of Mamet, creating an engaging and often laugh out loud funny story that keeps the audience guessing up until the last. However, from the moment Russell introduces Christian Bale’s fat, balding, badly bearded con man Irving Rosenfeld, applying the world’s worst hairpiece to try and cover the world’s worst combover, it is evident that there is a deeper theme at work. One of identity; at what point you are yourself, at what point are you someone else and what happens to your soul when you live in the murky grey between.
When successful con artist Irvin Rosenfeld (Bale) falls for a charming and seductive English girl (Adams), the good times are seemingly only just beginning. They are a power couple bound by a mutual drive to destroy any semblance of who they once were, identities they see as weak and vulnerable. Money flows, love blossoms and even the presence of Bale’s younger, unstable wife (Jennifer Lawrence) isn’t enough to rock the foundations of their questionable enterprise. The sudden and unexpected presence of power hungry, arrogant and naive FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) turns their delicate operation upside down and they find themselves in a bind, with cooperation to destroy their criminal peers the only chance at saving themselves. The major bee in DiMaso’s bonnet; corrupt Jersey politican Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner).
So far, so many other con movies. What sets American Hustle apart though is Russell’s reluctance to determine who his protagonists and who his antagonists are until the very end. There are no clear goodies and baddies. Just damaged people trying to do what they know best in order to stop themselves having to think about who they really are. They are all damaged, all flawed and at times good intentions are muddied by poor judgement or questionable morals. But no one is outright….bad. Just….human.
The successful transition from page to screen of this delicate nuance is in most part down to a brilliant ensemble performance from all four leads. Bale is the charmer who just wants to be left to do his thing and have a quiet life, desperately trying to keep everyone from sinking and holding it all together with paperclips and sticky tape. Adams is the china doll siren, always on the brink of collapsing under the weight of her melancholia, masked by seduction and a willingness to always play her part to perfection, whatever the cost to her soul. Cooper is at a career best as the arrogant, power hungry FBI agent whose motives are clear, but his drive is uncertain. And Lawrence is the tragic comic relief who never allows you to settle on whether she’s dumb playing smart or vice versa.
It is from Russell another fine piece of tragically comic scriptwriting which is for the most part, despite it’s long running time, well paced and lean. Despite all of the serious questions it raises about identity and motivation, there are some stand out comic moments naturally woven into the movies tapestry, so as to never feel forced or out of place. Bale has great fun at the expense of his flabby, balding Irvine. Cooper’s back and forth with his downtrodden FBI boss (a perfect comic foil in Louise C.K.) breaks the tension at several points with an ongoing joke about an ice fishing story. And the introduction of a Latino FBI agent in unusual circumstances is brilliantly underplayed.
Lastly, it just looks beautiful. In every scene the cast are draped in yet another outlandish 70’s outfit befitting their extraordinary life styles. The set, hair and costume designers must have felt like they were in a living wet dream, evidently given free reign to bring the 70’s back to life with aplomb. Even if it can’t knock Gravity, 12 Years A Slave and Wolf of Wall Street off the Oscar perch at the top of the list, you’d be surprised if it didn’t clear up some of the production awards earlier on.
Conclusion: Well paced with a wonderful balance of comedy, drama and genuine tension. A director on a fine run of form with an ensemble cast on top of their game and willing to give themselves completely to their characters. Probably wont get Oscar nominated for Best Picture but I’d be surprised if it isn’t bothering some of the other big award ceremonies this year.
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Alessandro Nivola, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham