Sunday, 4 May 2014

American Hustle

Anybody remember the song “Do The Hustle”? If you do, then that that song typifies how 1970’s America was – the fashion was outlandish, the music was funky and the people were con artists and hustlers. But it was rich and vibrant and that’s why American Hustle is, more or less, an accurate portrayal of 70’s USA. Director David O. Russell has created an (arguably) original story against an unoriginal setting and yet this marriage works, providing an entertaining and sometimes downright hilarious tale of cheats, liars and some very questionable haircuts.

American Hustle places us in the mid-1970s with conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) making his living by conning people out of thousands of dollars. At a party, Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and they agree to pull of bigger scams by setting up a fake business, with Sydney assuming the pseudonym Lady Edith Greensley. However, they are caught out by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and forced into pulling out the ultimate con in exchange for release. Irving and Sydney must catch out corrupt politicians and gangsters by using the upstanding and well-respected mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as a catalyst. However, Irving and Sydney fear the worst thanks to Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who could easily blow their cover and seal their fate.

The film seems to portray nothing new – conmen dealing with gangsters, corrupt businessmen and overeager FBI agents – so it’s not the story that’s captivating but the performances and commitment these actors bring to their roles. The leading performances of Bale and Adams are absolute treasures to behold and Bale is (once again) virtually unrecognisable in his role, thanks to a dreadful comb over and putting a ‘bit’ of weight on. Adams is also convincing, her pitch perfect British accent fooling us as well as the characters on screen. But it’s the standout performances of Cooper and Lawrence that truly shine in this film. Cooper is hectic, eccentric and nasty as DiMaso, playing a side of himself we don’t often see (especially in The Hangover) and this can only be applauded. But Lawrence is the glue that holds the cast together. Her character is so twisted and dark that Lawrence plays it to easy perfection and convinces us that she truly is the Meryl Streep of our generation. Now that’s a title.

Aside from the acting, the film looks pretty good too. But it’s not beauty or well-placed shots that Russell is using here; it’s authenticity, ironically. It looks like it comes straight from the70s and nothing is out of place. However, setting it in that specific time period is no accident. The story is very loosely based on a real con – known as Abscam – that occurred in the 70’s. The film uses authenticity to allow the story to become real and when it all seems exaggerated, it only makes the story more truthful when it’s serious. Which it rarely is. Russell has his tongue shoved so firmly into his cheek, it’s a wonder there isn’t a rupture! Combining the authentic with the ridiculous seems to be Russell’s idea here and it works amazingly well. The characters are complete stereotypes, the scenario is atypical of 1970’s criminality and the dialogue can also be incredibly hammy, purposefully of course. And this all works within the narrative of the film. Russell achieves something incredible by mixing these two contrasting types of cinema.

But with that comes a big issue. Russell is so busy making the film look authentic and ridiculous at the same time, he loses narrative. For a large section of the film, the plot seems to go nowhere and focuses too much on the characters and not the bigger game at stake. It also becomes a little muddled and this can actually be put down to the actors. It’s clear that a lot of the script is improvised on, which makes it good for authentic viewing, but virtually useless for a cohesive narrative. The actors have a tendency to mumble important pieces of dialogue or shout over each other and the film loses its pace and meaning.

American Hustle is by no means a masterpiece or even Russell’s finest foray into film. In my opinion that still belongs to The Fighter. But Russell’s impressive eye for detail and nostalgia and the blistering performances of the cast make it a fun piece of cinema. Russell has delivered a good story and an even more impressive set of characters. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy and predictable and sometimes it’s never made explicitly clear as to what’s actually going on, but you can’t help but like its little ways. 

American Hustle gets a 4/5.


James Smith

American Hustle at CeX

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