A story about people doing anything to survive may not sound like a laugh riot, but David O. Russell’s wild ride through the hair strewn world of 70s era grifters is irresistibly entertaining.
Russell has a thing for dysfunctional families, from boxer Mickey Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) mouthy clan in The Fighter to the parents of Pat (Bradley Cooper) in Silver Linings Playbook, who are almost as nuts as he is.
In American Hustle, Russell cranks it up another notch by having Christian Bale’s con artist Irving Rosenfeld married to the deeply unhappy Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), while also having a mistress in the form of ex-stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who becomes Irv’s partner-in-crime by posing as an English aristocrat in order to better sell his money-making scams.
When they’re trapped by FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Cooper) they’re forced to help set up an elaborate sting operation (based loosely on the FBI’s Abscam operation) involving a fake Sheikh that at first targets popular New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) before becoming something much bigger, and far more dangerous.
Russell’s affinity for families extends to the repertoire of actors he has formed during his career, with The Fighter‘s Bale and Adams and Silver Linings Playbook‘s Cooper and Lawrence returning, all be it in very different guises.
In another Machinist-esque body transformation, Bale’s rotund Irv Rosenfeld (he gained 40 lbs for the role) is arguably his most complete performance to date. The “elaborate” comb over that we see Irv methodically setting in place at the start of the film thanks to plenty of hair glue and spray speaks to the polished act he puts on for the world that’s always a gust of wind away from falling apart.
Richie’s tight, manicured perm equally sends out a message of control that is at odds with the character once things start to get heavy. Cooper does his best work with Russell and brings plenty of entertaining tics to the table to make Richie a memorable character.
Russell has spoken publicly of his interest in strong female roles and the work of both Adams and Lawrence is outstanding. Adams especially is a powerhouse and oozes self-confidence and self-loathing in equal measure. Sydney is the smartest person in the room and it’s easy to understand why both Irv and Richie are so drawn to her.
Renner, who also sports a hairdo that can best be described as “very 70s”, holds his own as a politician doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, while a brief cameo from an uncredited Robert De Niro is one of the film’s many highlights.
American Hustle is very much the bastard offspring of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, while Steven Soderbergh could very well be its godfather (pun not intended). It’s impossible to watch the kinetic camerawork and quick zooms and not be reminded of Goodfellas and Casino, while the beautiful squalor of Boogie Nights is also evoked. Likewise, the caper element is very reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven, all be it without the smugness.
At 138 minutes, the film feels too long and could have done with a 20-minute trim to make it truly great instead of very good. On the flip side, we’re treated to more of Russell’s razor-sharp dialogue and amusing vignettes, not least of which the whole “science oven” (aka microwave) sequence and Lawrence’s OTT stab at Paul McCartney’s Live And Let Die in her rubber kitchen gloves.
Featuring performances as crazy as the film is chaotic, American Hustle is a feast for the senses and as much fun as you’ll have in front of the big screen this year.