David O Russell’s American Hustle begins with the claim that ‘some of this really happened’. This pretty much sets the tone for the film. Russell isn’t interested in sticking to the facts, but instead uses the true story of Abscam scandal of the late 1970s as a springboard into crafting an entertaining crime caper.
That caper centres around Irving (Christian Bale) a con man, who, with his partner in crime (Amy Adams) is convicted and forced to work for a cop called Richie (Bradley Cooper). Richie wants to entrap Jeremy Renner’s charismatic New Jersey Mayor, Carmine. Meanwhile Irving’s bitter wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) starts to become involved with her husband’s work. The story becomes increasingly complicated as a fake Arab sheikh, the mob, and politicians become involved.
I tend to find heist films difficult to follow, and staying on top of a plot involving con layered upon con can lead to occasional ‘what’s-going-on’ frustration instead of more than ‘what-will-happen-next’ intrigue , at least on first viewing. However the film has a lively swing to it, with flowing camera movements and elegant slow motions that beautifully match its fantastic Jukebox soundtrack. This stylish use of cinematography and music is reminiscent of Scorsese’s Casino and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
I think that it is this breezy charm that has led the film to be classified as a comedy by the Golden Globes, who awarded it for Best Picture. However, to call the film a comedy would misrepresent it. It isn’t funny enough to truly be a comedy. A better description would be a quirky crime drama. As with the films of the Coen brothers, much of the humor comes from the idiosyncrasies of the characters, and the odd period details, such as their flashy costumes and silly hair, which make the cast look as though they’re attending a seventies-themed fancy dress party.
The hairstyles and costumes don’t just establish the decade though, they also establish perhaps the major theme of the film, that of reinvention. The opening shot is of Bale applying fake hair and forming a comb-over, in a futile attempt to fool people into thinking he isn’t bald. This idea of disguising the reality about who we are reappears throughout the film, not only for the purposes of the con, but also in the relationships between the characters: lonely, desperate people wanting to change their lives for the better. And it is in those characters, and intimate depiction of them, that ‘American Hustle’ excels.
Each actor is given a juicy role to sink their teeth into, and each gives an incredible performance. Bale once again transforms himself physically, this time putting on a beer belly that makes him look more like The Penguin than Batman. Yet it’s a testament to Bale’s skill that it never feels like an attention grabbing gimmick. He inhabits the role of Irving so comfortably you forget about the physical change and believe completely in the character. After the po-faced humourlessness of the Dark Knight films, it’s refreshing to see him have so much fun with a role.
Amy Adams, like Bale, has proved herself to be one of the most versatile actors out there, capable of playing Disney princesses, timid nuns or tough bartenders , and, for an infatuated fan like myself, any film she is in is worth watching ( even the God-awful Man of Steel). This is perhaps her best performance yet, ranging from sexually-charged confidence to heartbroken vulnerability.
Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner are also very convincing, and conform to the crime genre staple of the cop being a far less respectable person that the man he’s chasing. Cooper’s character is an unlikable one, highly-strung and aggressive, with a fiancé he doesn’t acknowledge, and this contrasts nicely to Renner’s popular mayor Carmine, an honorable family man, yet one who is willing to bend the law for the benefit of the people in his town.
However, it is Jennifer Lawrence who is undoubtedly the stand out. She gives a firecracker of a performance, infusing the alcoholic Rosalyn with vindictiveness, loneliness and mental instability, a cross between Lady Macbeth and Jersey Shore. A second Oscar in a row looks like a strong possibility. Let’s hope she doesn’t trip this time.