‘Some of this actually happened’ states the opening title card of David O. Russell’ s freewheeling and acerbic comedic caper. It’s a sly and flippant and comment that not only reflects on the crisscross narrative that we are about to receive. It also matches the confident swagger of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, the double bill that marked O. Russell’s return to filmmaking several years after I Heart Huckabees (and several highly publicized verbal and physical alterations between collaborators) had somewhat sullied his career. In this hiatus Russell seems to have firmly pinned down his directorial voice and is making up for lost time, coming immediately on the critically lauded heels of these two recent films.
At the tail end of the 1970’s Irving Rosenfield and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) cross paths. He’s a con artist and forged art dealer, she’s a stripper with ambitions to be anything else and a flair for performance. They become lovers and partner up to dupe desperate would be clients out of vast fortunes. This comes to an abrupt halt when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) traps them in a sting operation and then hands them an ultimatum; lengthy jail terms or help him bring down four major fraudsters using their inside knowledge of cons. With little choice the fragile alliance set their sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of a run down New Jersey town, whose otherwise decent dreams to see the town back on its feet has him resorting to bribing potential affluent backers. What follows is an increasingly fraught and escalating situation that involves political corruption, the East Coast mafia and Irving’s astonishingly volatile, wildcard wife Roslyn (Jennifer Lawrence). That and some very eye catching haircuts.
The films lengthy opening shot details Rosenfield’s painstaking preparation for engaging in his illicit trade. This includes applying a ridiculous and elaborate hair piece using super glue and a frankly eye watering comb over (Bale must be a frontrunner for most egoless star working). This sets the tone for the act of deception and the recreation of identity that runs throughout the film. Rosenfield takes an astonishing, almost delusional pride in the commitment to the roles that he takes on; a commitment followed by Sydney who adopts the persona of ‘Lady Edith’, a descendant of British aristocracy whose elusive charm helps reel in their marks. Indeed everyone in American Hustle is restless to be something other than who they are. Small timers want to be big fish, beat cops want to be national heroes and corrupt politicians want to be heros of the everyman. This provides a melancholic tone underlying throughout what would otherwise be a fairly generic crime comedy. Russell clearly has a lot of heart for the characters he writes and it’s matched by his verve behind the camera. Every frame of the film is bathed in a luxurious, warm hue along a variety of assured directorial flourishes ; crash zooms, tracking shots and multiple overlapping voiceovers. He’s making every effort to create a sense of the period in which the film is set and he doffs his cap to several filmmakers of the period. Martin Scorsese in particular seems to be evoked clearly in the directorial style and for the most part this works to keep the narrative pace high and the period evocation believable.
However whilst the majority of American Hustle plays out at high tempo, O. Russell’s looseattitude toward structure and a tight plot prove to be as much problematic and pleasurable.There’s no denying that there is a lot of fun to be had with the escalating sense of chaos and anarchism as it cruises along. It is often, and delightfully, full of near the knuckle dark humour and profane laced musings. O. Russell’s cast step up to the task admirably and the dialogue rings with an authentic, semi improvisational feel. The downside is that this occasionally drags down the complex plot and crucially even comes close to bringing it to a grinding halt. There is such a vast array of colorful side characters and layers of betrayal and deception, that the exhausting attention to period detail and character quirks seems to obscure what should otherwise be clear. And certainly whilst its surely impossible to make story like this boring, the film does feel overlong for what should otherwise be a light footed caper. If the film is guilty of being over indulgent however, we are in least in the greatest of company when it comes to the cast. Bale and Cooper are terrific as a unique spin on the hunter and prey cliche, forced to assist one another yet utterly resentful of one another. Their portrayals as tightly wound, temperamental, exasperated ‘professionals’ throb with an infectious energy and a disarming humility. Movie stars they may be, they both feel far away from typical star performances. As good as they are however, the film is absolutely stolen by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Coming off her
Oscar win in O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence radiates fiery passion and honesty as Rosenberg’s neglected wife and young mother. High strung and over emotional she may be, she is certainly no where near as daft and hopeless as she seems and her clear and concise attitudes towards other characters is often breathtaking. An alcohol induced rendition of ‘Live and Let Die’ is at once utterly tragic and uproariously funny. It is Adams however who comes across the genuine heart and soul of the film. Less showy than any of her co-stars, she finds the vulnerability and desperation at the centre of her character that makes her empathetic and quietly courageous. All are backed by a solid supporting cast including Louis C.K. as Richie’s exasperated boss and an understated cameo late on that is really not worth spoiling.
It’s good to see such a prominent filmmaker from the 90’s back on such prolific form and O. Russell’s touch is for the most part infectious. The true trick now will be to see where his directorial voice can go from this unofficial trilogy that American Hustle rounds out. Perhaps he’s gotten a little too caught up with the hair and fashion in, but then again it’s a lot of fun whilst it lasts.