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American Hustle

D: David O. Russell / 138m

Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm

Small-time hustlers Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) have made a success out of an investment scam that involves Sydney posing as an English aristocrat with British banking connections.  They become so successful that they soon attract the attention of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso.  DiMaso gives them a choice: either be prosecuted or help him go after local mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) who he suspects of being corrupt.  Not really having a choice, Irving and Sydney go along with DiMaso’s plan, only to find the plan mutating beyond the scope of exposing Polito’s possible corruption.  Soon the Mob is involved and DiMaso’s ambitions are jeopardising both the scam he’s set up, and their lives.  With Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence) causing unexpected complications as well, it’s up to Irving and Sydney to come up with one more scam to save their necks.

Apparently based on the ABSCAM scandal from the late Seventies – where the FBI attempted to expose corrupt politicians and senators by dressing up as Arab sheikhs and offering them bribes for a wide range of illegal requests – American Hustle is a weird movie in many ways.  It celebrates Irving and Sydney’s love for each other while at the same time eulogising Irving’s faithfulness to his wife and adopted child.  The movie also presents their investment scam as essentially victimless.  This sets up DiMaso as the movie’s villain-in-residence, and encourages us to root for Irving and Sydney from the very beginning, and while pretty much every movie under the sun has a protagonist that the audience is supposed to identify or empathise with, the fact that Russell so blatantly overlooks their criminal tendencies – other than as necessary for the plot – is immediately disarming: we’re actively complicit in their criminal behaviour.  Where’s the moral ambiguity?

Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley Cooper

While Irving and Sydney are clearly “nice” criminals, Richie is the “bad” cop: manipulative, self-aggrandising, violent, and arrogant.  He attempts to come between Irving and Sydney, shows his impatience at every turn, and due to his eagerness to get ahead, rarely makes the right move when part of the scam is in progress.  So bad is he, it’s almost funny, as if he’s an unfortunate composite of every bumbling FBI agent ever portrayed on the big screen.  Rosalyn, initially dim-witted and somewhat agoraphobic, develops into a player overnight, eventually “showing” Irving the way out of their shared predicament.  She’s a brash, outspoken character who never once rings true except when lambasting Irving for getting involved with Sydney.  And then there’s Carmine, a well-meaning politician whose naïveté gets him into so much trouble, and so quickly, you wonder how he ever managed to become mayor in the first place.  These are the main characters that Russell has admitted he cared more about than the story.

With such a focus, it’s a relief then that the performances by all concerned are uniformly excellent.  Bale, sporting a hideous comb-over and a beer gut, gives one of his best performances as the love-struck, hen-pecked, slightly less clever than he thinks Irving.  With each scene he peels back another layer of a man who at first seems one-dimensional and hollow, but who is actually heartfelt and loyal to those he cares about.  It’s a carefully structured performance and reminds anyone who might have forgotten that Bale is as adept at playing ordinary characters as he is damaged or vengeful ones.  Adams offers equally good support – and a decent British accent – as the emotionally torn Sydney, battling her burgeoning feelings for Richie before realising he’s using her as much as she’s used her marks in the past.  As the wildly out of control Richie, Cooper excels, adding to the kudos he gained from The Place Beyond the Pines with a controlled yet seething reading of a man with too much ambition for his own good, and a frightening lack of empathy or understanding of the people around him.  Renner has the least showy role, but manages to breathe life into a character who, at first, lacks any depth.  As the movie progresses, his need to help the people is shown as a personal crusade and his inevitable downfall a sad indictment of the collateral damage that can occur in these situations.  And lastly, there’s Lawrence, possibly the finest actress of her generation, imbuing Rosalyn with a vulnerability and tenacity that more than make up for the deficiencies in the characterisation.  She’s nothing short of miraculous.

With such a concentration on the characters, rather than the story or indeed the script – there’s a great deal of improvisation throughout – American Hustle ultimately falls short of its potential.  The story and plot are predictable, with any quirks that may have been part of the real-life scam ironed out in favour of more time with Irving and Sydney and Rosalyn and Richie and Carmine.  Russell directs with his usual flair, and while his focus may have been misguided, the look and feel of the Seventies is recreated effectively – those clothes! – and the structure of the movie is almost flawless.  Danny Elfman’s music, along with a carefully selected soundtrack, helps heighten the mood of the period and complements Linus Sandgren’s warm-toned cinematography, while Judy Becker’s production design provides a subtler evocation of time and place than most “period” pieces.

In essence, this isn’t the polished gem that most would have it but more of a rough diamond.  Russell is incapable of making a dull movie, but he nearly pulls it off here.  This is a character piece, not the crime drama the trailers and the advertising make it out to be, and while there’s always room for a character piece, with this movie’s background, more attention to those aspects would have made the movie a stronger, more interesting watch.

Rating: 8/10 – with a great cast – and one notable cameo – keeping things from being too dull, American Hustle doesn’t quite make the grade as a modern classic; absorbing and awkward to watch in equal measure, there’s another movie in there somewhere but not the one that Russell wants us to see.

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