AKA The David O. Russell Reunion; Batman, Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon, & Mystique: The Movie; or, Golden Globes For Everyone!
I don’t make a habit of using this space to gush over how much I love one film or another. Even those I’ve really enjoyed I try to approach from a more critical perspective. That being said, I’ve just got back from seeing American Hustle, the new film by David O. Russell, and I thought it was bloody phenomenal.
Clever, fun and hugely fucked-up – my friend Liam Fleming described it as Goodfellas meets Boogie Nights – it’s the only film I’ve seen this year that seems like it could make an appearance in nearly every awards category, which, given what I’ll refer to only as The Argo Fiasco, probably means it’ll end up with nothing. If so, it’s a real shame.
The film opens with a title card proclaiming that “Some of this actually happened”. Like previous Best Picture winner Argo, American Hustle is based on real-life events, namely an FBI investigation into political corruption in 1970s New York/New Jersey. Unlike Argo, though, the film mines the deep dramatic and comedic vein of the material on which it’s based instead of falling back on genre trappings.
Adapted from a script by Eric Warren Singer entitled “American Bullshit” – which appeared on the 2010 Black List – American Hustle is a parable about the lies we tell each other, tell ourselves, the lies we inhabit in order to get by and how they come to define us. While negotiating this tricky thematic territory, it also somehow manages to frequently be hilarious.
Christian Bale stars as de facto protagonist Irving Rosenfield, a small-time con artist who makes a living out selling knock-off clothes from the back of his dry-cleaning store or embezzling from desperate. Then Sydney Prosser – an elegant, slinky Amy Adams – enters his life with her dreams of becoming a different person. Upon an offer of partnership, she storms out of his office only to return moments later with a cut-glass British accent and whole new persona ideal for rustling up further business.
They’re a perfect match for each other – she loves his confidence, he her intelligence – but a relationship where both parties are as much in love with the idea of reinvention, of getting one over, as they are each other. This is a world where, as Bale’s narration informs us, everything can be faked.
Complications arrive in the form of FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, a tightly-permed Bradley Cooper, who gets them on the hook for fraud. Looking to make his name, Richie offers them a way out: help him entrap four other criminals, four bigger fish, and he’ll give them immunity.
Soon enough, however, feelings seem to develop between Richie and Adams’ Sydney, who he knows only by her alias of Lady Edith Greensley. Is this connection real or is just another hustle?
Bounded on one side by this love triangle between his would-be jailer and a woman he’s no longer sure he can trust and other by his irreverence, narcissistic ex-wife – Jennifer Lawrence on stunning form – using his adopted son as leverage, Irving comes to understand the human cost of the life that he leads.
Each of these characters feed, in some way, into the notion of hustling, of getting one over, even if it’s on yourself. Rosenfield grew up smashing windows to fuel demand for his dad’s glaziers, but it’s not until Mayor Carmine Falcone gets involved – played by a glad-handing, compassionate Jeremy Renner – that he has a face to put on his victims, that of a genuinely good man.
Sydney start off with a stripper and, since then, has shut off access to her true self. It’s impossible to know to what degree in playing Rosenfeld and DiMaso against each other, where her intentions truly lie, where the play ends and the person begins.
DiMaso is a live-wire who lives with his mother and is desperate for a break, callously oblivious to exactly who might get stepped on en route. Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn is an emotional mess, who, whether through calculation or self-absorption, puts her husband in serious danger.
Louis CK appears as DiMaso’s unfortunate FBI superior whose wonderful, recurring, ultimately unfinished ice finishing story is the film’s only niggling loose end (*joke*).
American Hustle is a character study first and foremost, and it’s remarkable that out of a central cast of four with maybe half a dozen more in support no one feels shortchanged. Apparently whole scenes, swathes of plot development and character interaction, were “largely” improvised, though it’s impossible to tell exactly what: like all improvisation, it fits so well as to be unobtrusive and the whole film feels more-or-less evenly inspired.
Bale once more shows a willingness to transform himself physically almost beyond recognition: the film opens with him shirtless and paunchy, applying an elaborate wig/comb-over. Its Irving’s self-belief that Sydney claims drew her to him and Bale’s customary intensity and charisma in the role that makes this believable.
Similarly, Adams here shows the same capacity for reinvention that marked her performance in Russell’s The Fighter, a prescient trait for a character who’s her own worst enemy: her pursuit of a sense of self hampered by her chameleonic ability to change.
Cooper, meanwhile, brings his usual “messed-up nice guy” persona and draws both laughs and pathos from it as a guy who’s nowhere near as nice (or as good) as he probably thinks he is.
Of the central quartet, Lawrence’s role is the showiest, that of the alternatively detached and histrionic housewife. The film’s best, most memorable scene occurs between her and Bale in their bedroom; the crux of which I won’t spoil other than to say it shows a boggling capacity for adaptation and self-deception that puts Sydney et al in the shade.
American Hustle also works as a wonderful evocation of the period, from the uniformly terrible haircuts sported by seemingly every male character to the wonderful (if predictable) Seventies soundtrack that manages to never feel overblown or asinine.
There’s a segue between disco tunes and a club restroom to a raucous restaurant dinner party set to Tom Jones’ “Delilah” that’s almost stunning in its audacity’ verging on lunacy. Perhaps no director since Martin Scorsese has used popular music so effectively in this context.
While the soundtrack of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby highlighted the shallowness and sumptuous of the age in which the film is set by perversely using modern tunes, American Hustle succeeds where Luhrmann failed in making it more than a simple matter of style.
With its swooping camera, tight close-ups and subtle jump cuts, the film also feels like a masterclass in direction; one which recalls the likes of Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson while never feeling like it’s resorting to a simple playbook.
Despite the fast-and-loose pacing – the film runs at 138 minutes and never feels overlong by a single frame – and the flurry of emotions, American Hustle felt to me like a much more mature and coordinated work than either The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook.
It may be billed as a comedy, possibly to allow it access to the less rigorously contested awards categories at the Golden Globes, but that doesn’t discount how compelling American Hustle is in dramatic terms. Irving’s repeated betrayal of Carmine, a man of integrity he has come to like and respect, leads to one of the most affecting scenes I’ve seen in cinema all year.
Throughout the film, the simple feeling of enjoyment I was having somehow seemed to belie the notion that this was a serious work of cinema. I even feel a strange sense of guilt in considering it, perhaps, my favorite film of 2013, given the presence of the more demanding, “important” 12 Years a Slave.
While others films this year offered their own specific pleasures (and trials), American Hustle seems to have everything: complex performances, ingenious scripting, masterful direction; even Costume Design and Makeup & Hairstyling, categories I usually take for granted, seem to be vying for my attention. It’s a flashy, but there’s also substance to it, an elusive combination.
It’s the type of film where Robert DeNiro himself makes an appearance as an elderly mobster and it doesn’t feel like pandering. He too seems to get the quality of what he’s in.
There’s a scene featured in the trailer – so I don’t mind spoiling it – in which Rosenfeld draws DiMaso’s attention to a painting in an art gallery. It’s by one of the Grand Masters, very revered: people come from all over the world to see it. It’s also a fake, and, as Rosenfeld asks DiMaso, who does that make the true master, the painter or the forger?
Maybe American Hustle is inconsequential compared to, say, Captain Philips (a big dramatic release I forgot to review) and maybe it won’t endure the test of time, but, for now, I have no reservations about including it, at the very least, in my Top 10 Films of the Year.
If American Hustle is – to quote another new release – fugazi then I for one have no shame in saying I’ve been taken in. As confidence scams go, there are worse ways to lose the price of a cinema ticket.