In the past we have seen American gangster films which have crash banged and walloped their way onto our screens, equally there are those that are all talk and no trousers. Somewhere in the middle lies David O’Russell’s latest, American Hustle. Merging the casts of his two most successful films of recent years (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook), and throwing in many perms, a very questionable comb-over and a hell of a lot of side boob, Russell has managed to create a stunning and accessible mob film in his own way. On paper American Hustle may read like it has fallen out of the mind of Scorsese, but this is not simply the next in a long line of American gangster dramas. With a wardrobe to rival Saturday Night Fever, many more than Kermode’s 5 laughs, and some of the best and most surprising acting talent of recent years, this certainly isn’t the film you except.
We open with Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfeld elaborately gluing, yes gluing, extra hair to his head and delicately combing it over. It is a slow and precise opening sequence that could easily have been lifted from a more art-house genre piece, and sets the tone for the undefinable nature of the entire film. I guess the best way to define it, as the title suggests, is as a film about hustling. Christian Bale is a laundrette owner cum dodgy art dealer cum loan shark fraud. He meets Sidney Prosser, played by Amy Adams and after a short stint of a successful partnership in love and in business, eager FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) sees though Sidney’s her charming facade and she ends up in jail. In order to save their own skins, the pair team up with DiMaso in order to hunt down corrupt politicians and the obligatory Robert De Niro cameo part as mysterious mob leader, Victor Tellegio. There are no obvious ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso is just as ambivalently sympathetic as the well-meaning but corrupt Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who the plan revolves around. This is not a story about heroes and following the law, but what you need to do to survive. Despite the fraudulent dealings and adulterous behaviour, our protagonist Irving’s desire to make life better for his son makes him, in the end, one of the more compassionate characters.
You can see why American Hustle recently picked up the award for ensemble cast at the Screen Actors Guild awards. The whole film hinges on this mutual excellence, and thankfully no one let the side down. Christian Bale is recognisable only because he is consistently fantastic, but unrecognisable in his physical appearance; with his middle age paunch and balding head we are worlds away from Batman. Similarly his partner in crime, Amy Adams’ Sidney Prosser, may have apathy towards a polo neck but once again proves her considerable talent in a performance full of both vulnerability and charm. But it is the two actors whose careers David O’Russell has had a hand in shaping over the last few years who shine in American Hustle. Bradley Cooper, perhaps simply because after The Hangover I never thought that the sentence ‘Bradley Cooper was wonderful’ would ever be something which crossed my mind. But it is true. Following in the footsteps of his recent career renaissance, Bradley Cooper is wonderful as the ambitious and slightly sinister Richie DiMaso. Russell’s other favourite, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Irving’s mentally unstable wife Rosalyn is, just as we have come to expect of her, phenomenal. Her second time under Russell’s direction sees her once again explode with a multitude of emotion as a character that is vulnerable and difficult but with a performance that brings the humanity to the fore.
American Hustle is certainly not what you expect or have come to expect from a film about corrupt politicians, the FBI and mafia. It is instead a film about the blurred lines between right and wrong and how far you would go for the people you care about. It is by no means the most moving or thought provoking film which we will see this year, and owes the majority of its success to the performances it yields. But it is an enjoyable watch, and after all, the hair styles are fantastic.