Film Review: American Hustle

It’s hard to know what else there is to say about David O. Russell’s new film at this point. A huge hit with audiences and critics alike, it’s only just been toppled as UK Box Office number one – three weeks after its general release – by ‘12 Years a Slave’. It’s too early to tell whether it will be remembered as one of the best of 2014, but I think it’s probable that the leading performances will linger in audiences’ minds longer than the film itself.

Where there have been a few dissenting voices and reservations expressed about the merits of ‘American Hustle’, their reasoning has generally been that the film is all performance-driven. Some critics have said it lacks depth, others that a truly consistent story fails to emerge from the mêlée of gung-ho acting. These are valid criticisms, especially since the film’s narrative style and mobile camera work recall such modern classics as Boogie Nights and Casino – movies that admittedly have a far heftier impact. Of course, it’s also the very outré period set design and costumes that invite these comparisons, as well as all the tough-talking dialogue. And it’s because ‘American Hustle’ is much lighter fare than its obvious influences and reference points that we come to appreciate it more as a homage to those movies than an outright competitor.

That’s certainly enough for me, because American Hustle is a very enjoyable experience in its own right. Russell has by now amassed a great repertory company of talented actors, and he gives them all the space they need to create plenty of dynamic and highly watchable scenes.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are particularly strong as a couple of outrageous con artists who make a living by fleecing vulnerable white-collar criminals and dodgy businessmen by offering them phoney investment opportunities. Bale is now famous for his willingness to deeply invest in a role, resulting in physical transformations that wouldn’t embarrass Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman in their absolute prime. His Irving Rosenfeld is overweight and balding but possessed of an irrepressible self-confidence, and accordingly Bale and Russell waste no opportunity to showcase that very real gut and comb-over. He slouches around with his shirt unbuttoned, espousing about being a self-made man and how everybody’s a con artist really, yet most people can’t admit it to themselves. Somehow this attracts Adams’ beautiful Sydney Prosser, who immediately jumps in on Irving’s game with her own fictional creation – a lesser English noblewoman and socialite named Lady Edith, complete with an accent just posh enough to convince desperate all-American crooks that she’s legit. Sydney stays in character far beyond the call of duty, and eventually her two accents merge into an awkwardly affected and amusing Transatlantic mess.

If this all sounds preposterous, that’s because it is. It’s also very entertaining, and this is just the setup. What follows can accurately be described as a caper, and that should tell you all you need to know about where American Hustle departs from the tradition of its influences. It begins in situ, with the pair embroiled in an FBI sting: they’ve been brought in by Bradley Cooper’s sleazy overambitious agent, and forcibly bugged in order to bait more high-level political players into taking crooked money on camera. All does not go according to plan, and a series of voiceovers cut in to drag the narrative back to its genesis, before Irving and Sydney first meet.

It’s fast-paced stuff that runs for more than two hours, and so it gets a little excessive on more than a few occasions. Its ideas don’t run particularly deep, but it does at least engage with the idea of an inverted or misapplied American Dream: to be a self-made man or woman in this environment, you need to literally fabricate yourself, to make a new version of yourself built on façades and deceit. Rosenfeld’s key to success is that he knows when to stop; the same cannot be said of Bradley Cooper’s Agent Richie Di Maso, whose initial success in bringing in Irving and ‘Lady Edith’ leads him to take bigger and bigger risks. There are very few genuine people in ‘American Hustle’, and so it’s a neat plot point that the Mayor himself, being used as bait by Di Maso to attract Mafia money, seems to be a real working man’s politician. He apparently earnestly works for the benefit of the city’s regular folks, and Irving grows close to him, attracted to the character of a man who really is all he appears to be.

There are enough pleasing character tics and solid supporting roles to make for a much longer review than this, so I’ll stop now before I give too much away. (Although as an avowed Boardwalk Empire fan I must say it was great to see series regulars Jack Huston and Shea Whigham put in effective turns.) There are double-crosses aplenty and I doubt that anyone in the audience will be able to recall the details of each and every scam and plot swerve that occurs, but this doesn’t matter too much while you’re in the thick of it.

This is the kind of high-profile Hollywood entertainment that reminds mainstream audiences that big names are more talented than they are generally required (or permitted) to be in the lesser fare that inevitably peppers their careers. It’s not revolutionary, but it certainly has persuaded me that Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are capable top-tier Hollywood performers, if not revered artisans like the Day Lewises and Seymour Hoffmans of our time.

Words: David Hamilton-Smith