American Hustle (2013)

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David O. Russell’s patchy Abscam comedy satirises the Seventies 

American Hustle: the title promises a classic, definitive statement of the nation’s most typical forms of duplicity. The movie interweaves FBI entrapment of corrupt officials with a soap-Sopranos drama of the tangled relationships of a quartet of men and women. And a couple of mafiosos and a New Jersey mayor (played with spirit, despite the odd casting, by Jeremy Renner) thrown in for good measure.

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“Some of this story actually happened,” David O. Russell’s movie based on the Seventies Abscap sting operation jokily announces at its outset. This suggests a tongue-in-cheek, loosey-goosey approach, one that goes for laughs, as does the trailer, a compendium of droll and buoyant moments. And we sort of get that. But though this is an accomplished effort it fails to be truly original — or consistent. Despite its air of eccentricity and Russell’s typical giddy energy, this is more a patchwork of derivative elements. And they don’t ultimately quite fuse into a compelling plot line or meaningful finale. A lot of policoes get arrested. So what? Most of them we don’t care about or even know. And the story is as retro as its context, the thousands in attache cases passed over to officials dwarfed by the millions now pocketed by congressmen every day in the course of business.

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Mind you, the movie is ingenious. In assembling his eccentric characters and scenes, Russell is performing well on a certain technical level. There is good acting, ingenious mise-en-scène, a brisk pace. But despite its hugely positive critical reception, including a Best Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle, the result isn’t up to the best of Russell’s work, including his recent The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. The characters are eccentric caricatures, but the delight of Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings is missing. 

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Theatrical devices can be impressive but also dangerously distracting. Bale, on his own initiative apparently, put on forty pounds (which sidled him with a disk problem) and is given an elaborate “comb-over” and kitsch-flashy wardrobe for the role. He plays one Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist-cum-businessman who owns a lot of dry cleaning establishments and has a business in fake art and a profitable loan scam going for him. Rosenfeld, the Russell-Bale creation, is a man always pathetically embarrassed and repentant, torn between two women, his partner in deception (Amy Adams) and his nutty-agoraphobic wife (Jennifer Lawrence, given a delightfully louche and fallible escape from her heroic Hunger Games lead) . Rosenfeld, like the real-life Abscam con man Melvin Weinberg, agrees to help the FBI to catch a scam with a scam, but gets hopelessly entangled (or so it seems) in operatic guilt-trips and female jealousies. The whole scam is sketched in but there is so much emphasis on the screw-ups and female troubles that the seriousness of events and some of the mechanical details get lost in the shuffle. Do we really know what’s going on? Do they?

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The acting by Christian Bale and his backup team of Russell’s film, spends more time on bad hair and delightedly tasteless accoutrements, some of the uglier aspects of Seventies style, and leaves its suffering protagonist in limbo. Likewise his two women, wife Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) and girlfriend-collaborator Sydney (Amy Adams), are too ditzy and unsure of themselves (these are clichéd women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, their chief visual gimmick showing truly excessive amounts of breast) to achieve emotional dimension.

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American Hustle is repetitive and somehow inconclusive in its multiple-narrated tale of a fake Arab sheikh from Abu Dhadi (played listlessly by Michael Peña) who’s brought in by Irving Rosenfeld and his FBI cohort Richie DiMaso. As Richie, Bradley Cooper gets his own distracting, pointless visual gimmick. Though he’s presumably Italo-American, he puts his hair in tight curls to make it look Italian (as one wishes Jeremy Renner did: Renner gets a big brown pompadour). Cooper plays Richie as hyperactive and weird. But not weird enough. After his successful moment in the spotlight in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook Cooper subsides back into being not a particularly interesting actor. Another weakness is Sydney, Irving’s art and loan scam partner, as played by Amy Adams. Adams certainly convey’s Sydney’s insecurity well. But how can a con artist be that way? Remember Angelika Houston in The Grifters. Now there were some real con artists. (Wholly made up, of course, and all the better for it.) Sydney is supposed to be posing as an English aristocrat to impress people, but Adams never settles into the fake accent convincingly. So when she finally “drops” the English accent and comes clean to Richie, it makes little sense.

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It’s been commented that American Hustle evokes Goodfellas (using its voiceover narrations), Married to the Mob, and Prizzi’s Honor, with touches ofSaturday Night Fever thrown in. This is precisely the trouble. These different elements are indeed all present at one time or another as each main actor has a great scene or two. But this just shows how uneven tonally this movie is. It’s only the eccentric characters, especially the eye-catchingly over-dressed, overly suffering Irving Rosenfeld, who hold things together by the sheer energy of their performances. The movie revolves around its actors and serves them, instead of their serving the movie and the story it tells. We feel the cast’s enthusiasm and the filmmaker’s, but the result is disappointing.

American Hustle hits UK cinemas 1st Jan 2014.

Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
Runtime: 138 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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