Sunday, 5 January 2014

American Hustle

‘Some of this actually happened’ pronounces the title card at the beginning of American Hustle, a statement that sets the tone for the rest of the film. In stark contrast to the pompous declaration of ‘based on a true story’ that adorns the posters and trailers of many awards-baiting films American Hustle will soon be shortlisted alongside, this title card drolly undermines the authenticity of what we see on screen, whilst at the same time preparing us for the series of madcap events that make up the film. 

The farce the film is loosely based on is the ‘Abscam’ scheme from the late 1970s, in which the FBI enlisted the help of a convicted con artist (played in the film by Christian Bale) to carry out a sting operation in order to entrap political figures taking bribes. 

Unlike a lot of recent films which pertain to repeat faithfully the real life events it is based on, and unlike films like The Sting, Ocean’s Eleven and Rififi  that dedicate a lot of time to depicting the mechanics of the scheme, American Hustle is more interested in its characters and their neuroses than anything else. Director and co-writer David O Russell has displayed his talent for actor-friendly scripts in past films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, and here he oversees some of the best contemporary actors in Hollywood at the top of their game.

The chemistry and dynamism between the leads is thrilling to watch, in the same way that the best screwball comedies of the classical era provided templates for Hollywood giants likes Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant to strut their stuff. Bradley Cooper draws upon the same mania of his character in Silver Linings Playbook to entertainingly play Riche Di Maso (the names used are not the same as those in the real life Abscam operation), the coked-up, restless FBI agent with mother issues,  who instigates the whole operation. Amy Adams is smart, seductive femme fatale Sydney, involved in an affair and business partnership with Christian Bale’s con-artist Irving, and who constantly blurs the lines between role-playing and genuine emotions.  

Jennifer Lawrence is on screen a lot less as Irving’s manipulative, high-maintenance wife Rosalyn, but is perfectly cast in a role that capitalises on her vigorous off screen persona (hidden in some of her recent roles such as Katniss Everdeen), and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs with her potentially fatal interferences with her husband’s affairs. And Jeremy Renner plays the targeted politician Mayor Carmine, who is, unexpectedly, the moral centre of the film.  Through Carmine, in relation to the film’s post-Watergate context, the film unfashionably offers sympathy to those set up, and a warning to the overly ambitious out to get them.  

Christian Bale is surprisingly understated as Irving, and his relatively restrained performance allows the others to play off him. But, although he, like all the characters, successfully avoids slipping into caricature, the moral compass he is presented as possessing is never quite reconciled with his cold-hearted line of business, rendering him more of an enigma than the others. 

But this is a minor gripe in what is otherwise a joyously entertaining picture. It borrows much from the Scorsese aesthetic of pop music, voiceovers, alluring criminals and improvised dialogue, but David O. Russell has still managed to develop his own distinct style, one characterised by a keen eye and fondness for human behaviour, and its potential to slip into mania. Most actors in Hollywood will undoubtedly be hoping to work with him.


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