David O. Russell has an impressive directorial C.V. with films such as Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter under his belt. It was with Silver Linings Playbook he really cemented himself in the minds of mainstream audiences, with a film that delivered two remarkable performances from current darlings of Hollywood, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, along with Hollywood royalty Robert De Niro. In American Hustle, Russell brings together Cooper, De Niro and Lawrence with more of his acting alumni in the shape of The Fighter’s Amy Adams and Christian Bale.
Bale plays the distractingly-toupeed and combed-over Irving, an over-weight, middle-aged con-man. Irving meets glamourous, perpetually side-boob flashing Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party and the two are instantly drawn to one another, beginning what is essentially a love story with heist flick trimmings. Sydney, an ex-stripper, masquerades as a British heiress with links to high finance, and helps Irving to reel in potential marks to steal their money. The pair find themselves in trouble with the law, and end up at the mercy of enthusiastic FBI agent Richie DiMaso, who asks them to help him in a sting to take down various crooks, including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). To complicate matters further, Irving is still married, to the wonderfully explosive Rosalyn, (Jennifer Lawrence) who ensures that his new love and the con, don’t go to plan. The sting soon becomes more complicated than any of the trio would have liked, plunging them into the world of politics and organised crime.
“Some of this actually happened” proclaims the film’s opening title, giving an insight in to the theme of the whole piece, the blurring of truth and fiction (as it is based loosely on the Abscam scandal of the late 70s in which several politicians were implicated). Irving and Sydney’s con artists are not the only expert liars of the piece, meaning American Hustle becomes both comedic crime caper and examination of the nature of truth. Or to put it less grandly, it shows us that sometimes it can be OK to hustle when your life depends on it.
There is something distinctly old-fashioned about American Hustle, more so than just the wigs and large collars, as it sits between comedy and crime-thriller, along the lines of The Italian Job or The Pink Panther films. There are, of course, shades of more recent capers like Oceans Eleven, but the pacing, characterisation and even direction all feel very much in keeping with the period setting. It keeps in with the tradition of the more old-fashioned heist film in that it is funny. There are some moments which are laugh out loud funny, and there are some eminently quotable passages such as Irving’s re-naming of the microwave as a “science-oven” (which is sure to stick in my household) in between the double-dealing. There is also a great deadpan turn by comedian Louis C.K. as Richie’s commanding officer, with a running joke about an ice-fishing anecdote, proving once more there is more to him than just laughs.
The performances from the cast are all fantastic. Christian Bale has yet again thrown himself into a physical transformation as Irving, as while his bad toupee is a little distracting, it is the weight gain (although some is clearly prosthetic), change in posture and mannerisms that make him stand out. Bradley Cooper also shuns his normal role as heart-throb and adopts a tight perm and a sleazy demeanor, making Richie into an FBI agent even non-cons would want to steer clear of. Amy Adams’ Sydney is by turns vulnerable and astute, keeping the audience guessing as to where her loyalties lie. Then current Princess of Hollywood, Jennifer Lawrence, puts in another great turn as the bat-shit crazy Rosalyn, a bundle of nervous energy, enthusiasm and pent up rage. Never before have the words “I know who you are” been spoken with such pure venom.
Like Irving, American Hustle has a bit to spare around its mid-section, and could probably have had about another 15 minutes chopped from its screen time to make it a little sharper. The characterisation does maintain your interest, but it still feels a little saggy in the middle. In essence though, American Hustle is Silver Linings Playbook with a side helping of The Thomas Crown Affair, more about the love story and the relationships between the characters than the crimes they are committing, and it is all the more interesting for it.
Do the hustle! *
*If I’ve had it in my head for days, you should too.