American Hustle – Lies, corruption and dodgy hair in David O. Russell’s stylish 70’s flick

David O. Russell’s last 2 films, The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), hit big with critics and at award ceremonies alike, earning plenty of nominations and even going home with a few accolades (Christian Bale and Melissa Leo won Academy Awards for their performances in The Fighter, as did Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings which also won the BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay). His latest, American Hustle (2013), has similarly won big at this year’s Golden Globes for performances (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence) and for Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy category. It has also been nominated for a whopping 10 BAFTAs and 10 Academy Awards. However awards and nominations aren’t always an indication of whether a film is any good or not (case in point: the abysmal War Horse (2011) nominated for the Oscar for Best Film in 2012 – really Academy?). With that in mind, is David O. Russell’s story about dishonest deals in the late 70’s worthy of all the praise it’s receiving? Or is it as flat as a perm gone wrong?

American Hustle begins with a disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened”. That opening joke sets the tone for the rest of the film – a playful, funny drama that is similarly filled with truths, half-truths, and plenty of barefaced lies as well as lots of characters pretending to be something they’re not. Indeed the first character we see is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) as he goes through his usual morning routine of gluing a hairpiece to his head and creating a substantial comb over – a man literally faking his way through life and a reminder that no-one is what they seem in this film. Irving is a con artist working with the similarly deceitful Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to scam others into parting with their cash for a loan scheme that doesn’t work. Things are going great for the powerful couple until an unwise deal leaves them in trouble with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). He agrees to let them both walk free though if they turn their scamming ways onto entrapping corrupt public figures, one of the first being Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). But as the lies get deeper trouble starts to brew for them all, and not just in the form of Irving’s tempestuous stay-at-home wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

Heading back to that opening disclaimer, the moment you see it onscreen you realise you are in David O. Russell film land. All of his work is filled with quirky moments, heaps of style and vivid playful direction. And American Hustle has all of these regular David O. Russell elements in bucketloads. He employs his usual fast edits and quick camera work to draw you into this world and keep you compelled to watch the story as it unfolds. The overall look and design of the film also keeps you watching: the mad 70’s hair, the costumes, the excellent soundtrack. All of this sets the scene and lets you really melt into the film and its late 70’s setting. Yet another element always present in O. Russell’s films is a great blend of comedy and drama. Although humour is always a big part of his work though he is careful never to let the laughs exceed the serious moments. In fact the sombre instances feel all the more powerful when they do suddenly appear alongside the laughs, a method that also works well for American Hustle.

A clever mix of hilarity and sobriety takes a good balance in an actor to perform, and perform well. But O. Russell always fills his work with actors able to take on this challenge, and American Hustle is no different. Christian Bale leads the great cast and, in typical Bale method fashion, gained a lot of weight to play the bloated and manipulative Irving in what is another chameleon-like performance from the actor. Amy Adams is also superb as Sydney, deftly plays a woman who has many layers to her, quite literally as she slips from her normal accent to a posh British one to play her alter ego “Lady Edith Greensley”. Adams also never completely lets go the suggestion that even Sydney herself is what she seems, always hinting that there is something below her surface when all anyone else wants to see is her looks. On the other end of the spectrum though is Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso who is everything he seems – the perpetual macho bull in the china shop who wants results and wants them now. Up against this horrid trio Jeremy Renner as the corrupt Mayor Polito looks like an absolute saint and Renner plays him as such – likeable, charming and kind to everyone he meets.

Yet even against all these brilliant performances, it is once again Jennifer Lawrence who completely walks away with the film. As the larger-than-life and glam Rosalyn she is daring and fiery…and completely hilarious. Even at times when the character does run the risk of becoming a parody – an outlandish joke on which to fall back on – Lawrence always pulls it back by delivering a powerful emotional performance when it is required of her, showing Rosalyn as a desperate soul underneath her extravagant hair and nail polish who only wants her husband to want her.

With all these stunning performances on show it is often hard to forget that there is a script behind them that also keeps you watching. Eric Warren Singer and O. Russell’s script is a clever tale that pops throughout with laughs and drama. It also revels in playing around with the truth – although part of it is loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation, it doesn’t make a point of sticking to the facts, as that opening line suggests to us from the start. Despite all of the fun moments in American Hustle though, the overall script isn’t exactly watertight. It does occasionally suffer from trying to be too wry, in particular from an overuse of flashbacks that O. Russell uses as a dramatic device. These flashbacks can get a little annoying at times when repeated especially when they seem to be used for no reason at all other than a way for O. Russell to stop the audiences’ interest from waning. And that interest does get tested, mostly by a bloated running time. Singer and O. Russell’s script could have definitely done with a trim at parts to keep it way under the 2 hour mark, especially when a few scenes feel throw away rather than necessary to the plot.

The year has only just begun, yet already it looks like American Hustle is going to be very high up on my list of the best films of 2014. Maybe the script isn’t perfect and the running time too long for its own good, but this is still a slick, stylish film filled with great characters and a perfect cast ably pulling off fab performances. David O. Russell’s trademark mix of comedy and drama rounds off what is a great and entertaining con flick. If American Hustle does win any of the accolades it has been nominated for you can be rest assured it has more than earned it.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on January 30, 2014.

One Response to “American Hustle – Lies, corruption and dodgy hair in David O. Russell’s stylish 70’s flick”

  1. I liked it too….well made movie and a wonderful soundtrack…

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